This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The United States opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands after a three-decade absence, attempting to signal a commitment to a Pacific island country that has become a focus of U.S.-China rivalry in the region.
The embassy, a modest building in the capital Honiara, was previously the U.S. consular agency for the Solomon Islands and lacks a resident ambassador. It is dwarfed in size and staffing by China’s embassy, which occupies one of the largest official buildings in Honiara.
“Becoming an embassy is really the first step as we hasten the process of establishing more permanent facilities and deploying additional diplomatic personnel,” said Russell Comeau, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires ad interim – a deputy temporarily serving as head of a diplomatic mission.
“I hope to get a bit of a bigger team out here to help deliver on many of the initiatives we are working in partnership with around the region,” Comeau said at a press conference in Honiara on Thursday.
The Solomon Islands, a country of some 700,000 people, has become a hot spot for the U.S.-China competition for influence with economically lagging Pacific island nations.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s government switched its diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019 and signed a security pact with Beijing last year that has been followed by a Chinese police presence in Honiara, training for local police and the donation of vehicles and water cannons. Neither country has released the text of the agreement.
China, along with countries such as Australia and Indonesia, is helping to bankroll the Pacific Games in Honiara in November this year. It is also funding a new hospital for the Solomon Islands, which struggles to provide basic healthcare for its people.
Jeeney Robert, a Solomon Islands businessman, said he welcomes a U.S. embassy in his country, but is skeptical about the U.S. government’s motivation
“My question to the U.S. government is why now? Do they genuinely want to really be present in Solomon Islands or do they have their own vested interest because of China’s presence in the country,” he said.
A Department of State statement said Comeau will continue as U.S. Chargé d’Affaires ad interim. He has been a U.S. diplomat in the Solomon Islands since October 2021.
“The U.S. embassy in the Solomon Islands will serve as a key platform from which the U.S. government will continue to develop the Indo-Pacific partnership with our critical partner here in the Solomon Islands, one that is based on shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” Comeau said at the press conference.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the embassy “symbolizes a renewal of our relationship” and is part of plans to station more diplomats in the Pacific.
The U.S. embassy in Papua New Guinea, which also served as the embassy for the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, moved into a new U.S.$250 million building in the capital Port Moresby in November last year.
American involvement with Pacific island nations diminished after the breakup of the Soviet Union, with a reduction in embassies and U.S. development assistance through its Peace Corps agency.
China, over the past two decades, has become an important source of infrastructure, loans and aid for Pacific island nations as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and gain allies in international organizations such as the United Nations.
Honiara resident Esther Poratee said U.S. involvement in the Solomon Islands has not been felt by its people for a long time.
She said she hopes the embassy opening will mean there is more collaboration between the countries that are aid donors to the Solomons.