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Solomon Islands becomes unlikely epicenter of U.S.-China competition

A U.S. delegation led by the top White House and State Department officials for Asia is heading this week to the Solomon Islands, a South Pacific archipelago with fewer than 700,000 inhabitants that has unexpectedly become ground zero for U.S.-China competition.

Why it matters: A planned security agreement negotiated with Beijing, which could allow China's navy to dock warships on the islands, sent the U.S. and its allies in Australia and New Zealand into diplomatic hyperdrive.

  • The U.S. officials heading to the islands will make the case that the U.S., not China, "can provide security, prosperity and peace for the region," an administration official told Axios on Monday.

The latest: With the U.S. officials already en route to the South Pacific, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Tuesday that the deal had already been signed, per Reuters.

  • That has not been publicly confirmed by the Solomon Islands, but Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare recently told parliament his government was preparing to sign it.

Driving the news: According to a draft agreement that began circulating online last month, the Solomon Islands could request Chinese security forces to restore "social order." Once on the islands, they'd also have the authority to "protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects."

  • Rumblings of a deal came just weeks after Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced in February that the U.S. would open an embassy in Honiara, the capital, to increase engagement with the islands, where there has been a fierce internal debate about relations with China.
  • Senior U.S. officials have been placing calls to Honiara, and the State Department and Pentagon have issued warnings about the "export" of China's security forces and the "concerning precedent" for the region.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison dispatched a senior diplomat to the islands and described the pending deal as a "great concern," with New Zealand echoing that sentiment.

  • Between the lines: The deal could both see Chinese naval vessels docking about 1,250 miles to the northeast of Australia, and signal that Canberra's traditional influence in the South Pacific is waning.

But Sogavare rejected the "very insulting" suggestions that his country was "unfit to manage our sovereign affairs."

  • He has said the Solomon Islands won't allow China to build a military base, but is "diversifying" its security partnerships.
  • U.S. officials, led by White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink, will try to change his mind.
  • Accompanied by USAID, they'll "be talking about a range of ways to offer assistance in the region," the administration official said.

Flashback: Matt Pottinger, the top Asia expert on former President Trump's National Security Council, visited the Solomon Islands in March 2019 amid concerns that the small nation — one of Taiwan's few remaining diplomatic partners at the time — might switch allegiance to China.

  • Despite a diplomatic push from Washington, the islands cut ties with Taiwan in September 2019.
  • The U.S. must be "very, very active" in the Pacific islands region, Pottinger told Axios on Monday. "U.S. and Australian policy toward the Pacific can’t fly on autopilot when the competition is as far along as it is, when China is so focused on military basing and influence and intelligence-gathering in that region."
  • Pottinger said that if China establishes bases across the Pacific, it could threaten U.S. supply lines in the event of war.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger noted this week on a trip to Australia that the geographical location of the Solomon Islands was important during World War II — when a crucial battle was fought on Guadalcanal, the archipelago's largest island — and remains so today.

  • He also warned that the security pact was "too good to be true" for the islands and would come with strings attached.
  • China's Foreign Ministry spokesman said last month that countries that have long sent "military aircraft and vessels right to others’ doorsteps" should not "condescendingly" object to such "mutually beneficial cooperation."

The backstory: Relations with China are contentious within the islands themselves.

  • The provincial government on the most populous island, Malaita, defied Sogavare in 2019 by maintaining links with Taiwan. The U.S. controversially promised Malaita $35 million in direct U.S. aid in 2020.
  • When protesters from Malaita attempted to storm parliament last November, Sogavare blamed “deliberate lies” about the diplomatic switch from China to Taiwan and meddling from “outside powers.”

What to watch: The "vague" language in the draft agreement could play to Beijing's advantage, according to Charles Edel, Australia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • "The Chinese government has a track-record of denying its true intentions while taking actions to militarize its forward presence and interfere in the domestic politics of foreign nations," he says.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with Beijing's claim that the deal was already signed.

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