Powder keg Pacific: How China and the USA struggle for influence in the South Seas
Created: 08/14/2022, 20:19
By: Sven Hauberg
China's second aircraft carrier "Shandong": The People's Republic is increasingly involved in the Pacific.
© Li Gang/Xinhua/Imago
Not only Taiwan stands between China and the USA: In the South Seas, US top diplomat Wendy Sherman campaigned for more cooperation - and was "snubbed" by the Solomons.
Munich/Honiara – The Battle of Guadalcanal is considered one of the turning points of World War II.
From mid-1942 to early 1943, the armed forces of the USA and Japan fought fierce battles on the Pacific island, in which thousands of soldiers died on both sides and dozens of ships were sunk.
The Japanese Empire had occupied the jungle island a few months earlier - as a starting point for attacks that would have even endangered Australia.
The US went on the offensive - and finally defeated the Japanese after six months.
Last weekend, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Guadalcanal, which is now the main island of the Solomon Islands, a state with around 650,000 inhabitants.
Sherman commemorated the dead who fell in battle 80 years earlier.
Manasseh Sogavare, Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, was also supposed to attend the ceremony, but canceled at short notice.
Local media then said Sogavare had "snubbed" Sherman - after all, her country's second highest-ranking diplomat.
The two did meet up later that day.
But Sherman was still disappointed and spoke of a "missed opportunity".
The Deputy Secretary of State's visit was intended to "highlight the enduring relationship between the United States and the Solomon Islands," as the US State Department announced in advance.
The Solomon Islands, however, can apparently afford to simply abandon such a high-ranking US visitor to their remote island nation, as they have recently had a powerful new friend at their side: China.
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In April, the government in the capital Honiara signed a security agreement with the People's Republic that, among other things, allows Beijing's navy to visit the islands by ship and take supplies on board there.
The exact text of the agreement is not known.
However, observers fear that China could one day open a military base in the Solomon Islands.
Sherman also spoke of a "critical" development.
Prime Minister Sogavare and China's Foreign Ministry have routinely rejected such claims for weeks.
The states in the region may have only a few million inhabitants, but due to their location they are of outstanding strategic importance.
The Solomon Islands are only around 2,000 kilometers off the northeast coast of Australia, other island states border on US territories such as American Samoa.
Should China become more involved in the region, the spheres of influence of the two superpowers would collide directly here.
Most observers agree that the conflicts of the future will take place in the Pacific.
Today, much of the western Pacific is allied with the United States: from Japan and South Korea in the north to Taiwan and the Philippines in the south, the states form a kind of chain that significantly restricts China's unhindered access to the Pacific.
That's one of the reasons Beijing is threatening to annex the democratically governed Taiwan to the People's Republic.
It's about abstract things like spheres of influence, but also about very concrete things like trade routes between China and the rest of the world.
Cooperation with the Pacific island nations is a priority for the Biden administration and is "absolutely crucial for the future of the entire region," Sherman said in Honiara.
In New Zealand, her last stop, she even said: "The future will be written here in the Pacific."
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Sherman's signal to China: the US is getting involved in the region again
Wendy Sherman had started her journey in Samoa and then traveled to Tonga.
The visit to the two small South Sea islands was primarily intended as a signal to China: Look, we are still present in the region.
That has recently looked different: Donald Trump had alienated many states in the region with his America First din.
Joe Biden's new Indo-Pacific strategy, on the other hand, is based on cooperation, including with the Pacific mini-states.
US embassies will soon be opened in Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa, and in Honiara, Solomon Islands, Sherman said.
However, the People's Republic of China has maintained diplomatic missions in both countries for several years.
Recently, however, things have not been going well for Beijing in the region either.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited several Pacific islands at the end of May as part of a Chinese charm offensive, but he was unable to persuade the governments of ten countries in the region to sign a far-reaching security and trade deal with Beijing.
The agreement would have given the states better access to China's huge market.
In return, Beijing wanted, among other things, to be involved in police training and the expansion of cyber security in the Pacific States and to gain better access to mineral resources in the region.
But distrust of China is apparently so great among some of the states that Foreign Minister Wang had to call on the countries "not to be too scared and not too nervous".
So far, however, his appeals have largely gone unheeded.
In the Solomon Islands, Sherman tried to rekindle this mistrust of China.
"It's time to decide if we want governments that are transparent and accountable to their people," she told the Pacific.
Sherman also criticized "leaders who believe that coercion, coercion and violence are used with impunity."
Sherman didn't name names, but given China's aggressive behavior towards Taiwan and its support for Russia, it was more than clear who she meant.
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However, the USA must also rebuild trust.
Exploding duds from the Second World War still claim lives in the Solomon Islands today.
This was pointed out by the country's police and security minister during Sherman's visit.
Sherman's itinerary had also previously taken her to Australia, a close US ally with major interests in the South Pacific.
Canberra was also very concerned after the Solomon Islands China Agreement, not least because the differences between Australia and the People's Republic are enormous.
Sherman spoke with Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong about the common security policy - including a planned alliance with Great Britain and the USA called AUKUS.
As part of this partnership, Australia plans to acquire several nuclear-powered submarines based on technologies from the two partners.
The nuclear submarines are intended to enable Australia to conduct military operations far from its own coasts.
Observers are certain that AUKUS is primarily targeting China.
However, it is still unclear
Australia is also currently courting the Solomon Islands, among other things with the equivalent of around twelve million euros for the Pacific Games next year, an important sporting event in the region.
The gift of money was delivered by Australia's Minister for Pacific Affairs, Pat Conroy, during a recent visit to Honiara.
He took the opportunity to seek assurances from Prime Minister Sogavare that despite the rapprochement with Beijing, Canberra was still his country's preferred partner.
Foreign Minister Wong and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had previously met with the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands - a big step for the small country.
However, China did not splash out either and donated a complete sports stadium to the Solomon Islands.
Cost: the equivalent of a whopping 50 million euros.