Will Washington Learn from China’s Successful Stroke in the Solomon Islands?

By James Durso

China has no shortage of political sages but, in its recent move on the Solomon Islands, Beijing was channeling the American philosophes Woody Allen (“80 percent of success is showing up”) and George Washington Plunkitt (“I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”)

Washington, which probably confused the Solomon Islands with American Samoa, reacted with fury that China was trying to establish close relations with another Pacific nation. But someone found a map and a bevy of officials was dispatched, arriving too late to avert the signing of the framework agreement on security cooperation – which was not shared with the Americans, to their dismay.

The last Americans to leave in such a rush for the Solomons were the U.S. Marines in 1942 as Japan started building naval and air bases in the islands. But since then, it’s been flyover country.

The head of the U.S. delegation said the U.S. would respond – and didn’t rule out military action – if China established a military presence on the islands. U.S. ally Australia played the bad cop and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison thundered a Chinese base would be a “red line” for his country and the U.S., and was likewise vague about retribution.

In a follow-on statement the U.S. offered less stick and more carrot, promising “[to] expedite the opening of an embassy in Solomon Islands; advance cooperation on unexploded ordinance; launch a program on maritime domain awareness; dispatch the Mercy hospital ship to address public health; advance a dialogue on the return of the Peace Corps; deliver additional vaccines; and advance initiatives on climate, health, and people-to-people ties.”

The prime minister of the Solomons, Manasseh Sogavare, then accused Australia of hypocrisy by not informing it in advance that Canberra would join the anti-China AUKUS security pact with the U.S. and UK. Prime Minister Morrison noted the Solomons didn’t raise any objections when informed of the pact, but that was probably because the smaller nation knew it would be wasting its time.

The issue has roiled national politics in Australia where the opposition Labor party accused the governing coalition of failing to act when news about the pending pact surfaced in 2021. Since the “China threat” is the rage these days, Prime Minister Morrison accused China of timing the agreement to influence Australia’s federal  elections in May.

Washington and Canberra will be anxious to move on and not reflect on the policy or intelligence failures that abetted China’s success. Threatening “red lines” to a country whose exports to the U. S. in 2020 amounted to $3.3 million, most of that processed fish, is absurd and an aid-in-kind donation to China’s propaganda work.

On the other hand, the Solomons exported $316 million dollars in goods to China in 2020, most of that rough wood and aluminum ore. Exports to China have increased at an annualized rate of 26.9%, from $815k in 1995 to $316M in 2020, and China is the #1 export destination of the islands.

Despite Obama administration talk of a “pivot to Asia,” the U.S. was distracted by its two-decade campaign in the Middle East and Afghanistan. But China paid attention to its neighbors and did the logical thing by expanding its trade, military, and diplomatic presence in the region. As a status-quo power, the U.S. finally reacted, but probably only because ally Australia is concerned.

Washington can respond by increasing naval patrols in the area to deter China, but that may not work given China’s increasingly assertive military moves in the South China Sea and over Taiwan. And sending naval vessels to the South Pacific may further tax the U.S. Navy which has too few ships that are suffering from readiness shortfalls, and may actually help China by pulling assets away from the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. And the Navy’s rusty warships won’t impress China’s admirals.

What the U.S. can send is money, and that may have been Sogavare’s plan all along. If the U.S., Australia, Japan, and China send cash to Honiara he may get a boost in next year’s election, though the U.S. and its allies will probably support his opposition (just don’t call it “election interference!”)

In the 1970s, USAID’s development spending shifted away from “technical and capital assistance programs,” that is, hard infrastructure like roads, bridges, and airports to a “basic human needs” approach focused on food and nutrition, health, and education. It was probably thought this tack would build long-term relationships and influence with client groups in the target counties. But that relationship building is unattractive to politicians in many countries that want to focus on economic development and don’t welcome the cat’s paw of foreign assistance that looks a lot like building their political opposition.

U.S. relations with the Solomons have focused on things like climate change, small-scale infrastructure, forestry, small enterprise development, water and sanitation, and pandemic response, but nary a word about investment that generated kilowatt-hours or road-miles.

Meanwhile, China has become the world’s go-to supplier of roads, bridges, airports, seaports, railroads, and telecoms infrastructure. It lacks America’s soft power so has elected to master civil engineering to counter the West’s program of social engineering.

The Solomons joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2019 and the key project is the $825 million investment in the Gold Ridge mine that will include development of power and port facilities, roads, rail and bridges, an effort that strikes some observers as excessive for a single mine with a known production history. The Gold Ridge project is financed by China, but future projects may be financed by Chinese loans which have come under scrutiny lately with allegations China is practicing “debt-trap diplomacy.”

China’s loan agreements are written to benefit the lender (no surprise there), and its expectations are transparent, like not hosting the Dali Lama or backing Taiwan. Beijing’s terms and the fact that it does not involve itself in the formation of political institutions in countries that receive development aid may make it attractive, especially in parts of the world where “American values” now means transgender bathrooms, urban violence, and rampant drug abuse, and no one recalls the successes of the  U.S.-fostered Green Revolution and Plan Colombia.

And countries like the Solomons won’t cede the moral high ground to the U.S. and Australia after they blocked a proposal to the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rules and allow widespread production of the vaccines (though the U.S. reversed its stance in early 2021, and Australia and the COVAX program later provided AstraZeneca vaccines and China provided the Sinopharm vaccine.)

And if the Aussies whinge about serving in the Solomons alongside “ruthless” Chinese units that repressed demonstrators in Hong King, Canberra sure won’t appreciate Chinese spokesmen reminding them of the war crimes committed by their elite commando unit in Afghanistan.

What to do?

First, stop bullying every country that seeks to establish mutually beneficial relations with China. Every successful move by China isn’t a strategic disaster for the U.S. and, if America hadn’t blown its allowance in Afghanistan, it would have the bandwidth and money to pre-empt Beijing’s moves. Panicking just motivates China and encourages foreign leaders to get close to China to force the Americans to pay attention and pay up.

Second, understand that China will continue to expand in its neighborhood. Former U.S. president Barack Obama said Iran and Saudi Arabia must “share the neighborhood,” so will the U.S. and China do the same in the Pacific? China probably thinks it’s playing defense and countering the numerous U.S. bases that are within 200 miles of its mainland, by hopping over the Second Island Chain, a barrier controlled by the U.S. and its allies that will be used help to encircle China and deny it access to the wider Pacific.

As its wealth grows, Beijing becomes more confident and soon its GDP will exceed America’s in exchange-rate terms, possibly by 2029. (China’s GDP already exceeds America’s in Purchasing Power Parity terms.) China will have more people and more money (it doesn’t have the burden of America’s worldwide military commitments that may soon cost it $1 trillion a year) and may be able to concentrate its military, economic, and political forces on its priority objectives in the Pacific.

Public hyperventilating that the agreement has transformed the Solomons – which are 1200 miles from Australia, and 6,000 miles from the U.S. – into a “Pacific flashpoint” won’t contribute to a constructive solution, but will contribute to the national security establishment’s habit of threat inflation which distracts from real problems, but increases budgets and influence.

Third, Goose meet Gander. If the U.S. thinks Ukraine can freely choose to join NATO, why can’t the Solomon Islands freely choose its partners?

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared, “When we say that we want a free and open Indo-Pacific…we mean that on a state level, that individual countries will be able to choose their own path and their own partners.” The U.S. has no obligation to pay for projects in the Solomons if it aligns itself with China, but an appreciation that a small country should be free to choose its own path will increase Washington’s credibility in the long term, even if it doesn’t win every round. But Washington is probably sensitive to the appearance of a second retreat in a year after the NATO defeat in Afghanistan, so it’s making a last stand on the Solomons.

Fourth, make a better offer. The U.S. hates bidding wars as it feels its offering is above all others, but you can’t eat politics and “engagement” – unless you are one of the local NGO cup-bearers who scores a U.S. contract.

Development scorecards, like the one for the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s effort in the Solomons highlight statistics for the usual stuff like “civil liberties” and “government effectiveness” but nary a mention of “jobs created.” Business isn’t the strong suit of development bureaucrats and diplomats, but the U.S. government can steal a march on China if it makes local job creation Job One without the hard to quantify (and that’s no accident) stuff like “Investing in People.” This will strike China’s weak spot as it is notorious for importing Chinese labor for its investments instead of training and hiring locals.

Last, clean up those unexploded World War 2 bombs. It has been almost 80 years since the end of the war in the Pacific but cleaning up the unexploded ordnance (UXO) is apparently only a priority for the Solomons. The U.S. Department of Defense admits UXO is “a serious hazard to the population and preventing land from being used by the very poor population,” an accurate assessment  that is not backed up by real money which, in the early 2010s, amounted to less than $1 million annually for all the Pacific Islands.

If the Chinese are smart, they will immediately deploy a team to remove the UXO left by the U.S. and the Empire of Japan, an PR opportunity that will play well at home and in the Solomons by making the Japanese the co-culprit and exploiting still-strong Chinese memories of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.

As the world embarks on the Asian Century, America must decide if its “with us or against us” catechism is relevant in the contest with a rival that will be more economically and militarily powerful, and more culturally coherent, than the Soviet Union. Its road show performance in the Solomons may be a preview of how it will behave on opening night.

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Central Asia.

Featured Graphic: Photo 177250393 / Solomon Islands China © Liskonogaleksey | Dreamstime.com