A US delegation led by top White House and State Department Asia officials is visiting the Solomon Islands this week, a South Pacific archipelago of fewer than 700,000 people that has unexpectedly become ground zero. US-Chinese competition.

Why is this important: A planned security deal negotiated with Beijing that could allow the Chinese navy to dock warships on the islands has sent the United States and its allies in Australia and New Zealand into a diplomatic hyperdrive.

  • US officials traveling to the islands will argue that the United States, not China, “can deliver security, prosperity and peace to the region,” an administration official told Axios.

Driving the news: According to a draft agreement which began flowing online last month, the Solomon Islands could ask Chinese security forces to restore “social order”. Once on the islands, they would also have the power to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects”.

  • Rumors of a deal came just weeks after Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced in February that the United States would open an embassy in Honiara, the capital, to increase its engagement with the islands, where there are had a fierce internal debate over relations with China.
  • Senior US officials have made calls to Honiara, and the State Department and the Pentagon have issued warnings about the “export” of Chinese security forces and the “worrying 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 navy ships dock about 1,250 miles northeast of Australia and signal that Canberra’s traditional influence in the South Pacific is waning.

But Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare dismissed “highly insulting” suggestions that his country was “unfit to manage our sovereign affairs”.

  • He said the Solomon Islands would not allow China to build a military base, but was “diversifying” its security partnerships.
  • He recently told parliament he was ready to sign the deal, according to the WSJ.
  • US 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 their minds. Accompanied by USAID, they “will discuss a range of ways to offer assistance in the region,” the administration official said.

Rollback: Matt Pottinger, the top Asia expert on former President Trump’s National Security Council, visited the Solomon Islands in March 2019, fearing the tiny nation – one of Taiwan’s few diplomatic partners at the time – does not change allegiance to China.

  • Despite a diplomatic push from Washington, the islands severed ties with Taiwan in September 2019.
  • The United States needs to be “very, very active” in the Pacific Islands region, Pottinger told Axios on Monday. “US and Australian policy towards the Pacific cannot fly on autopilot when the competition is as advanced as it is, when China is so focused on military bases, influence and intelligence gathering. in this region.”
  • Pottinger said if China established bases across the Pacific, it could threaten American supply lines in the event of war.

Commandant of the Marine Corps General David Berger noted this week on a trip to Australia that the Solomon Islands’ location was important during World War II – when a crucial battle took place on Guadalcanal, the archipelago’s largest island – and the rest today 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 spokesperson said last month that countries that have long sent “military planes and ships directly to each other’s doorsteps” should not “condescend” against such “cooperation”. mutually beneficial”.

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

  • The provincial government of the most populous island, Malaita, challenged Sogavare in 2019 by maintaining ties with Taiwan. The United States controversially promised Malaita $35 million in direct U.S. aid in 2020.
  • When protesters in Malaita tried to storm parliament last November, Sogavare blamed “deliberate lies” about China’s diplomatic move to Taiwan and interference from “external powers”.

What to watch: The “vague” language of the draft agreement could work to Beijing’s advantage, according to Charles Edel, Australian president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • “The Chinese government has a habit of denying its true intentions while taking steps to militarize its forward presence and interfere in the domestic politics of foreign nations,” he says.