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The leader of the Solomon Islands visited Beijing. Here is why that's important

Visiting Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, left, shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Li Qiang after they witnessed signing on agreement for both countries at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Monday, July 10, 2023.
Andy Wong
Visiting Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, left, shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Li Qiang after they witnessed signing on agreement for both countries at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Monday, July 10, 2023.

MANILA, Philippines — A new deal on police cooperation is just one of the many agreements signed between the Solomon Islands and China this week, as the two countries seek to establish a "comprehensive strategic partnership" much to the chagrin of Western powers concerned about Beijing's increasing influence across the Pacific.

"Solomon Islands, sir, has a lot to learn from China's development experience," Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told Premier Li Qiang following the signing of the police agreement and others involving development, infrastructure and trade on Monday, according to The AP.

Sogavare also met this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who said that even though the Solomon Islands-China ties of being "friendly arrived belatedly, it is leading the way in relations between China and the Pacific Islands," reported the South China Morning Post.

This trip has been widely reported on by the international news, particularly by outlets big and small across the Asia-Pacific. Here are five questions answered about why so much attention is being paid to a trip by an admittedly little-known world leader from tiny Pacific island country:

Where is the Solomon Islands and why is it important?

The Solomon Islands is an archipelago nation of more than 900 islands located in the South Pacific Ocean about 1,200 miles northeast of Australia in a part of the Pacific known as Melanesia. It is a member of the group of Pacific Island states that add up toabout 2.3 million people spread out across 15% of the Earth's surface. The Solomon Islands has a population of just about 715,000 and is a mostly agrarian society, according to the CIA World Factbook.

In 2019, when current-Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare came to power he switched the Solomon Islands' alliance from Taiwan to Beijing — a move that shocked the island country's Pacific neighbors and concerned the United States. At the time, Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii, told NPR that the decision to make the switch was an economic one.

"China is, in fact, Solomon Islands' largest export destination. And so if one were to believe that economics was going to influence political decisions, then we've seen it in the case of the Solomons," Kabutaulaka told NPR's David Greene, noting that that move also raised questions about China's ability to persuade other countries with much smaller and vulnerable economies to switch ties.

Later that year, the small island nation of Kiribati also switched its alliance from Taiwan to Beijing.

Why is this week's trip by Sogavare notable?

This is the first trip the Solomon Islands prime minister has made to Beijing since quietly signing a security pact with China last year — a move heavily criticized by the United States.

When the agreement was signed there was fear that it would allow China to build a military base and station troops in the Solomon Islands. Sogavare has denied that this would happen.

"Let me assure you all again, there is no military base, nor any other military facility, or institutions in the agreement. And I think that's a very important point that we continue to reiterate to the family in the region," he told The Guardian.

The security pact, however, galvanized Western countries into action to do more for the Pacific, said Geoffrey Miller, a geopolitical analyst with the Democracy Project at the University of Wellington in New Zealand.

"And that they needed to cultivate better ties with the Pacific, or otherwise, the Pacific countries would fall into the Chinese sphere of influence," Miller told NPR, noting that since a parade of diplomats from Australia, New Zealand and even the United States have made their way to the Pacific.

Since then, Washington has announced plans to reopen a U.S. embassy in the Solomon Islands' capital of Honiara and the Biden Administration has promised millions in new aid over the next decade to the Pacific Islands.

Still, full details of that pact have still yet to be released.

What's in the police pact signed this week?

No details have been released yet about the police pact signed this week between the Solomon Islands and China.

The Guardian reports spokesperson for the U.S. national security council urged the details of the agreement to be released immediately while also assuring that Washington "respects the ability of nations to make sovereign decisions in the best interests of their people."

What is the level of China's influence in the Pacific?

It depends on who you ask.

If you are getting information about it from countries most concerned about China's influence in the Pacific, you would think Beijing's influence there is sudden and ever increasing.

In reality, China has long been influential across the region, but only since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, China's worldwide economic initiative, have Western powers really started to pay attention to the loans and aid being dolled out by Beijing.

However, according to the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, which tracks the power and influence of different countries such as China and the United States through their Pacific Aid Map, China's influence in the Pacific actually peaked in 2016 when its financing totaled nearly $334 million. It has been declining ever since on both the supply and demand side, researchers at the Lowy Institute wrote in their analysis.

"Since 2017, Beijing has been tightening capital controls, increasing regulatory measures to curtail domestic financial risks, and taking a more cautious approach given concerns about political and investment returns on China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)," the researchers wrote.

Meanwhile, on the demand side, Pacific Island nations have become aware of tales of Belt and Road Initiative corruption and loans that are impossible to pay off. "These outcomes have reduced the appetite for new Chinese infrastructure lending in the Pacific."

What does the Solomon Islands want out of all of this?

For Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, this week's trip is all about showing that "he is in the driver's seat and that he will do what he thinks is best for his country," said the University of Wellington's Miller.

"Pacific states are keen to talk to Beijing at the moment, for the first time," Miller said. "They've suddenly got a viable second option other than taking what Australia and New Zealand are prepared to give them. So there is a real great game on in the Pacific."

The Pacific Island countries — fresh out of colonialism and extremely rich in natural resources — just want to develop and tackle issues important to them like climate change, Iati Iati, a senior lecturer at Victoria University in Wellington, said.

"Their position has always been, they just want to develop and they want to secure for themselves their autonomy and their sovereignty," he said, noting that the Pacific actually sits in a very good place: with two big players in the world (China and the United States) competing for their loyalty.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 15, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Iati Iati, who is a senior lecturer at Victoria University in Wellington.
Ashley Westerman
Ashley Westerman is a former producer who occasionally directed the show. She joined the staff in June 2015 and produced a variety of stories, including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. During her time at NPR, Ashley also produced for All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. She also occasionally reported on both domestic and international news.