The United States is considering re-establishing an embassy in the Solomon Islands, a senior US State Department official has said, as Washington seeks to bolster its presence in a region where China is rapidly expanding its influence.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to announce the opening of a new embassy in the Pacific island state during a visit to neighboring Fiji – 29 years after the United States downgraded its diplomatic presence in Honiara.
The move comes just months after riots in the island chain of 800,000 people in November when protesters tried to storm parliament, then rampaged for three days, setting much of Chinatown on fire. the capital Honiara.
The unrest was sparked by opposition to veteran Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and partly fueled by poverty, unemployment and inter-island rivalries, but anti-China sentiment also played a role.
The United States closed its embassy in the capital of the Solomon Islands in 1993 and is now represented there by a consulate, with an embassy in the capital of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby.
Blinken flew to Fiji after a meeting in Melbourne of the United States, Japan, India and Australia, during which the so-called Quad pledged to deepen cooperation to ensure an Indo-Pacific region free of “coercion,” a thinly veiled blow to China. economic and military expansion.
During a briefing on the flight, a senior US administration official told traveling reporters that “there are very clear indications that (China) wants to create military relations in the Pacific.”
“The most pressing case right now is what is happening in the Solomon Islands. With Chinese security personnel backing an increasingly embattled president in a way that has caused a lot of anxiety in the region,” the official said.
China announced in December it would send police advisers and riot gear to the Solomon Islands as foreign peacekeepers began to leave the Pacific nation after being deployed during the deadly protests.
A subplot to the November unrest was Sogavare’s efforts to forge closer ties with Beijing after he abruptly severed the island’s longstanding ties with Taiwan in 2019.
China is reluctant to any official exchange between other countries and autonomous Taiwan, which it considers its own territory awaiting reunification.
The Solomon Islands government said in December it had accepted Beijing’s offer of six “liaison officers” to train its police force and equipment, including shields, helmets, batons and other equipment.” non-lethal”.
In recent years, China has stepped up pressure to isolate Taiwan internationally, forcing eight countries to transfer diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing since 2016.
A diplomat from the US Embassy in Port Moresby said the reopening of the mission in the Solomon Islands would build on US efforts to place more diplomatic personnel throughout the region.
The goal was to “engage more with our Pacific neighbors, connect US programs and resources to needs on the ground, and build people-to-people connections,” the diplomat said.
The US government has provided vaccines and other aid to the Solomon Islands to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, the diplomat said.
The US Congress and the White House will have to approve the embassy proposal.
The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence-France Press contributed to this report