On February 2, 2023, the United States opened its embassy in Honiara, Solomon Islands. The decision comes nine months after the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with China, which has concerned the U.S. and its partners in the Pacific. Since then, China’s influence over the Solomon Islands has increased.
China has a police liaison team operating in the Solomon Islands. The liaison team, part of China’s Ministry of Public Security, trains the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) in various law enforcement techniques. In October 2022, members of the RSIPF went to China for a month for additional police training.
The other duties of the liaison team are less benign. Chinese People’s Public Security University Press describes them having dual identities as both police and diplomats. “The police liaison officer stationed abroad is a policy made by the central government based on a profound analysis of the security situation at home and abroad, in order to maintain national security and social stability, combat transnational crimes, protect my country’s overseas interests, and effectively maintain, utilize and extend my country’s strategic opportunity period.”
According to open-source reporting, the liaison team has donated water cannons, vehicles, firearms, communications systems, and forensic supplies to the RSIPF. The liaison team also recently trained locals and children in martial arts.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare aims to deepen his cooperation with China. In a speech on Chinese New Year, he mentioned strengthening ties in “policing and security, healthcare, trade, investment, rural development, infrastructure development, and people-to-people exchanges.”
In addition, on January 30, 2023, Francis Sade, Premier of the Guadalcanal Provincial Government, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Solomon Islands Chinese Business Council (SCBC). The primary purpose of the deal is strengthen the economic and investment relationship between the Guadalcanal Provincial Government and China’s Guangdong Province.
Further, Chinese telecom giant Huawei is building over a hundred cell towers on the Solomon Islands. The first 38 are expected to be complete by November 2023.
THE UNITED STATES
While the U.S. has a long history in the Solomon Islands, most notably the Battle of Guadalcanal during WW2, there has been no U.S. diplomatic presence on the islands since 1993. The U.S. government and its partners in the Pacific have trained the RSIPF in explosive ordnance disposal techniques, provide aid to the Solomon Islands through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and continues trade with the Pacific nation.
The opening of the embassy is drawing mixed reactions from Solomon Islands locals. On social media, some locals are saying they “welcome” the news, while others aren’t convinced at the attempt at good will and don’t like the U.S. [poking its nose] in places with “political instability.”
The U.S. remains concerned that China could set up a military presence in the Solomon Islands, which would give the People’s Liberation Army (PRC) a much greater capability to monitor the U.S. and its allies moves in the region.
China’s multifaceted relationship with the Solomon Islands will likely present obstacles for the new U.S. diplomatic presence in Honiara. China’s continued training of the RSIFP indicates it has some level of control over the country’s security forces, as the Solomon Islands has no military. This could present an issue for the United States in deepening any further security cooperation with the Solomon Islands.
The U.S. will need to invest significant resources and time into the Solomon Islands to counter Chinese influence. Many locals see the U.S. and Japan as having mined their country during WW2 and not having done enough to remove the explosive ordnance on the islands. China may use such talking points to influence local opinion about the U.S. on the ground.