US won’t rule out military action if China establishes base in Solomon Islands

One of the most senior US officials in the Pacific has refused to rule out military action against Solomon Islands if it were to allow China to establish a military base there, saying that the security deal between the countries presented “potential regional security implications” for the US and other allies.

Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was part of a high-level US delegation to the Pacific country last week.

He said the US team, which also included the National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, had a 90-minute “constructive and candid” meeting with prime minister Manasseh Sogavare in which the US team detailed concerns about its recently signed security deal with China.

“We wanted to outline for our friends in the Solomons, what our concerns are,” said Kritenbrink. “Prime minister Sogavare indicated that in the Solomon Islands’ view, the agreement they’ve concluded has solely domestic implications. But we’ve made clear that there are potential regional security implications of the agreement not just for ourselves, but for allies and partners across the region.”

On Tuesday, Kritenbrink reiterated the US’s willingness to act in the region if a military base were established by China.

“Of course, we have respect for the Solomon Islands sovereignty, but we also wanted to let them know that if steps were taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power projection capabilities, or a military installation, then we would have significant concerns, and we would very naturally respond to those concerns,” he said.

When asked what that response could involve, he said: “Look, I’m not going to speculate and I’m not in a position to talk about what the United States may or may not do in such a situation.”

Pressed on whether he would rule out the prospect of the US taking military action against Solomon Islands were a naval base to be established, and, if not, whether he was comfortable with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison’s talk of the base being a “red line” for Australia, he said: “I don’t have a lot to add beyond what I’ve already stated.”

In a statement last week, the Biden administration said the US would “respond accordingly” if China was allowed to establish a long-term presence on the islands, while noting assurances from Sogavare that he had no intention of allowing a military base.

The rhetoric escalated in the wake of the statement, with the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, saying Australia had “the same red line” as the US when it came to China’s involvement in Solomon Islands, and defence minister Peter Dutton using his Anzac Day address on Monday to declare: “Australia should prepare for war”, claiming that China was “on a very deliberate course at the moment”.

Kritenbrink also noted China’s military ambitions, saying: “I think it’s important in this context, to keep in mind that we do know that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basic infrastructure that would allow the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] to project and sustain military power at greater distances. So we wanted to have that candid conversation with our friends in the Solomons. We outlined our concerns … and we’ve indicated that we’ll continue to monitor the situation closely and continue to engage with them going forward.”

The text of the security deal which was signed by China and Solomon Islands is secret, though Solomon Islands MPs have called for the prime minister to release it publicly.

“I think it’s clear that only a handful of people in a very small circle have seen this agreement. And the prime minister himself has been quoted publicly as saying he would only share the details with China’s permission, which I think is a source of concern as well,” said Kritenbrink.

However, a draft of the deal was leaked on social media last month and contained provisions permitting China to “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”.

Kritenbrink said that “the United States of America is not in the business of asking countries to choose between the United States and China or anyone else”. But that it is interested in promoting “a proactive vision for again the shared interests and principles that we believe are vital to all of our friends across the region”.