US to reopen Solomons Island embassy in fight for influence in South Pacific
Written by: (Contributed) on 21 February 2022
The decision by the Biden administration to re-open its embassy in the Solomon Islands at Honiara is a move likely to further escalate already fraught diplomatic tensions with China in the South Pacific. Many of the diplomatic hostilities have already been played-out in the wider Pacific in recent years; many of the countries are small but with important voting rights in regional trade forums which raises issues of strategic significance.
The Solomon Islands has, furthermore, been pushed to the forefront of the rivalries by switching diplomatic links from Taiwan to China in 2019; subsequent ethnic unrest caused widespread concern about the ability of government institutions to contain the problem.
In mid-February, during a high-level diplomatic visit to Australia and the Pacific, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, stated the US intention of re-opening their embassy in the Solomon Islands. Their previous embassy in Honiara closed nearly thirty years ago, and since that time the US has relied upon their diplomatic facilities in neighbouring PNG to conduct diplomatic business. The recent move indicates an upgrade of the Solomon Islands with US regional intelligence assessments.
Behind the scenes it is not particularly difficult to establish the reasoning behind the US diplomatic and military thinking: recent US intelligence assessments have included the increased ability of China to develop long-range strike capacity with weaponry. It was noted, for example, 'much of our northern base infrastructure is highly vulnerable to attack … the challenge facing Australia's military is how to counter China's long-range strike and power projection'. (1) Countries neighbouring Australia's northern approaches have, therefore, been assessed as highly strategic and important allies.
The Solomon Islands, historically, has been regarded by western powers as a backwater, inhabited by a population which largely exists on subsistence agriculture. Political unrest, throughout the previous twenty years has, however, caused Australia considerable concern. The most recent problems arising included further tensions between Malaitian ethnic groupings and those in Guadacanal, with Honiara as the capital city.
In between 24-27 November last year, groups of rebel Malaitians laid siege to Honiara and attempted to storm Parliament House, torched a police station and ransacked Chinatown causing damage estimated at US$67 million. (2) The rioters aimed to topple the government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who later rebuffed an attempted vote of no confidence. The stated cause of the unrest was the switching of diplomatic links from Taiwan to China in 2019: residents of Malaita, historically, had strong links with Taiwan for decades and have benefited financially from their aid programs.
While the ethnic unrest was soon contained by military personnel from Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, simmering tensions continue to cloud political life and have revealed how fragile and vulnerable institutions of state and government are in the Solomon Islands.
The re-opening of the US embassy is, therefore, part of a concerted plan to stabilise the country for 'US interests'; it was said that 'Washington seeks to beef up its presence in the region where China is rapidly expanding its influence'. (3) Diplomatic missions and embassies, however, are also synonymous with espionage; it has been noted 'countries spy and most … send spies overseas disguised as diplomats'. (4) They invariable organise strings of agents, operating both legally and illegally to gain advantage over others. It is, therefore, no surprise to find the re-opening of the US diplomatic facilities in the Solomon Islands was accompanied by an announcement they were already planning to re-start their Peace Corps program, which ceased in the country in 2002. (5)
The US Peace Corps has always been closely associated with a 'hearts and minds' strategy to boost 'US interests'. In fact, their official website has provided clear guidelines for their 'motivated change-makers … and … working side by side with local leaders'. (6) The organisation has three stated goals: training, promotion of the US and a better understanding of other peoples. (7) Since its establishment in 1961, the US Peace Corps has placed over 240,000 'volunteers' in 142 countries; the Solomon Islands will soon be re-added to the list. (8)
The Peace Corps, however, has been closely associated with the US diplomatic services and are renowned for using their facilities for supposed aid programs. In reality, the Peace Corps exists in a shadowy world of spooks and 'ground human'; while increased technological capacity and satellite systems have enhanced the ability of the US intelligence services to spy on remote regions and countries, they nevertheless require localised and specialist knowledge of terrain to make accurate assessments. The Peace Corps, by their very nature, are used to fulfil the requirement. Declassified US intelligence material from the previous Cold War reveal the close working relationship between diplomatic officials, aid programs and personnel from the military and intelligence services. (9)
While the Solomon Islands have been pushed into the forefront of US-led regional diplomatic struggles in recent times, Blinken also used his visit to Australia to hold a video conference with seventeen other Pacific Island nations. He used the cyber forum to push 'US interests' stressing greater regional involvement, 'pledging more support from Washington'. (10)
US diplomatic influence was also brought to bear elsewhere in the Pacific: the move also accompanied by an official announcement from five Micronesian countries to suspend their plans to withdraw from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). The regional trade body has important representation opportunities for its eighteen members, including Australia. The announcement was particularly important for the US as the small sub-region of the Pacific is centred upon Guam which hosts US regional military facilities linked on an arc which swings from the Pine Gap US intelligence facilities to the US base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and across sensitive parts of Asia.
The Micronesian delegation to the PIF has, however, claimed in recent times they were side-lined by more dominant Melanesian and Polynesian countries which also had strong links with China. They announced their intention to leave the PIF last year, effectively weakening US diplomacy in the wider region. It was, therefore, noted by Malaysian media that the forum formed part of the 'diplomatic and security game in the region', for 'US interests'. (11)
Blinken also used his working visit to the Pacific to visit Fiji, which has the largest deep-water harbour facilities in the Pacific. The country has enormous strategic significance for naval considerations and the US clearly aim to strengthen their ties with Suva.
The recent high-level diplomatic visit of Secretary State Blinken to Australia was undertaken in line with general regional war-mongering and the strengthening of intelligence capacities:
We need an independent foreign policy!
1. Can ADF fight hemispheric war? Sovereign Missiles Special Supplement, Australian, 10 February 2022.
2. Solomon opposition figure, rfi., 14 December 2021.
3. US to re-open Solomon Islands embassy after 29 years, The Straits Times, 12 February 2022.
4. In the spying game, all sides parade spooks as diplomats, Australian, 28 March 2018.
5. Solomon Islands welcomes US announcement, The Solomon Times, 14 February 2022.
6. Web-site: The Peace Corps, Changing lives the world over, February 2022.
8. Wikipedia: the Peace Corps, February 2022.
9. See: Counter Insurgency Operations, A Handbook for Suppression of Communist Guerillas and Terrorist Operations, US Military, early 1960s, reference: 19960709 – 052, with specific reference to Chapter Five, pp. 29-32, which contains information about the role of US diplomatic officials with military and civilian agencies.
10. US in Solomons to counter China, Australian, 14 February 2022.
11. Straits Times, op.cit., 12 February 2022.
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