US opens embassy in Solomon Islands to counter China in the Pacific

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced plans to open the mission during a visit to the region last year. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON – The United States has opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands after a 30-year absence as it seeks to boost diplomatic relations in the Pacific as a counter to China.

The opening of the new embassy in the capital Honiara became official on Jan 27.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had earlier announced plans to open a diplomatic mission in the Pacific island nation during a visit to the region in 2022.

The last US embassy in the Solomons closed in 1993 amid post-Cold War budget cuts. The US was represented there by an ambassador based in Papua New Guinea.

“The opening of the embassy builds on our efforts not only to place more diplomatic personnel throughout the region, but also to engage further with our Pacific neighbours, connect United States programmes and resources with needs on the ground, and build people-to-people ties,” Mr Blinken said on Wednesday.

The US move comes amid concerns among Washington and its allies about Beijing’s military ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region after it struck a security pact with the Solomon Islands in 2022.

In September, US President Joe Biden hosted Pacific island leaders at a Washington summit.

During the meeting, he pledged to help stave off China’s “economic coercion” and promised to work harder with allies and partners to address islanders’ needs.

A joint declaration between Washington and 14 Pacific island states resolved to strengthen their partnership, and said they shared a vision for a region where “democracy will be able to flourish”.

Those endorsing the document included the Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, whose government had earlier indicated it would not sign, heightening concerns about his ties to Beijing.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said on Thursday that Beijing was “willing to work with all parties” to help the island nation develop.

“China has no intention of competing with anyone for influence in the Pacific Island region,” she said at a regular briefing in Beijing.

Separately on Monday, the remote atoll nation of Kiribati said it would rejoin the Pacific Islands Forum, ending a split that had threatened unity at a time of increased superpower tensions in the strategically located region.

Kiribati switched diplomatic recognition from self-ruled but Chinese-claimed Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, as did the Solomons.

The reopening of the embassy in the Solomons comes as Washington has been negotiating the renewal of cooperation agreements with three key Pacific island nations: the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau.

Under the Compacts of Free Association first agreed in the 1980s, Washington retains responsibility for the islands’ defence and exclusive access to huge swathes of the Pacific.

Washington said it signed memorandums of understanding in January with the Marshall Islands and Palau. It said it had reached consensus with them on the terms of future US economic assistance, but has not provided details. REUTERS, AFP

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