The last time the outside world paid much attention to the Solomon Islands was in 1943: More U.S. troops lost their lives in the six-month Battle of Guadalcanal there than in the deadliest four-year period of the Afghan War. Since World War II, this remote chain of South Pacific islands has gone from occupied territory to colony to frequently chaotic independent state, all without the great powers seeming to notice. Last month, however, a secret deal between the Solomons and China aroused fear of Beijing’s expanding presence throughout the region. China’s rivals worry that it may be shifting its security strategy, from a focus on economic sway alone to an increased emphasis on military dominance.
Over the past few months, rumors of a pact have been circulating among the small cadre of observers who can locate the Solomons on a map (they’re about 1,200 miles northeast of Australia) and almost immediately sparked alarm. Whereas the U.S. tends to demonstrate its power by sailing a flotilla through contested waters or conducting complex exercises with allies, China prefers to speak with massive infusions of cash. Beijing is the largest trade partner of most nations in East and Southeast Asia, and the largest source of imports for almost all of the rest of the continent. As a result, it wields a financial weapon more powerful than a fleet of battleships. Also unlike the U.S., which is enmeshed in an array of treaties, commitments, and partnerships—formal and informal—around the world, China has no formal alliance with any nation. Its apparent closeness with Moscow is relatively recent (and may yet be derailed by Vladimir Putin’s invasion), and its few long-term partners, such as Pakistan and North Korea, provide more headaches than help.
But that investment-versus-firepower balance is shifting. In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an ambitious military-modernization program. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), numbering nearly 1 million active-duty troops, would overhaul its training and equipment purchases in order to “fight and win wars” against a “strong enemy.” China’s navy already has more ships than any other in the world (although the U.S. Navy has greater tonnage), and its air force is larger than any competitor in the region. China has been increasing its defense spending every year for more than two decades, and in 2022 announced a bump of 7.1 percent. (The U.S. typically spends about three times as much on defense as China does, although apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult; Washington’s 2022 budget increase was 5 percent.)
This program of military upgrading has been accompanied by a steadily growing appetite for adventure. The same year as Xi’s announcement, China opened its first overseas military base, in the East African nation of Djibouti. It has built or is negotiating to build dual-use facilities in nations across the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Tajikistan, and Myanmar.
More worrying to its rivals, China has been willing to engage in military confrontations that previous leadership had steadfastly rejected. In the South China Sea, Beijing has seized and fortified scraps of rock claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan, and asserted rights over areas claimed by Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. In the high Himalayas, the PLA initiated a lethal 2020 border skirmish with nuclear-armed India: 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of PLA troops (fighting with fists, rocks, and clubs wrapped in barbed wire—all forces on the border have been unarmed for decades) were killed in the first fatal encounter between the two nations since the days of Mao Zedong.
All of this makes China’s intentions in the Solomon Islands more troubling. “This isn’t just paranoia,” Rory Medcalf, of Australia National University and the author of a recent book on Chinese expansionism, told me. “For years we’ve been seeing quasi-imperial behavior by China throughout the region.”
Both Chinese and Solomon Islands officials insist that there’s nothing new here. Since the end of the Chinese civil war, countries have had to choose between recognizing Beijing or Taipei as the true representative of a single China, and three years ago the Solomons switched recognition to Beijing. China, which is by far the Solomons’ largest trading partner, recently granted $120 million to enable the Solomons to host the 2023 Pacific Games. Australia’s former high commissioner to the Solomons has suggested that, in addition to refilling the nation’s coffers, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare “is anxious to shore up his personal political fortunes.” The security deal is said to permit China to protect its citizens working on infrastructure projects, and potentially the several thousand ethnic-Chinese Solomon Islanders who have suffered greatly from civil strife. The Solomons’ small police force has often been unable to maintain order: From 2003 to 2017 (and, embarrassingly to Sogavare, again in November 2021), it has had to call on Australia to help quell ethnic violence.
But other nations don’t buy China’s assurances. In late April, the U.S. sent out its most “this means business” delegation to the Solomon Islands in … well, maybe ever. It was led by Kurt Campbell (the National Security Council official responsible for coordinating all Asia policy), and included high-level officials from the State Department, the Pentagon, and other branches of government. This type of bureaucratic firepower isn’t sent to an island virtually as far as one can get from Washington on a whim. Indeed, the U.S. hasn’t even operated an embassy in the country for nearly 30 years. If the masters of American security policy believed that China’s gambit was not a threat to core U.S. interests, they’d have saved themselves an 8,300-mile journey.
Nations closer at hand are equally anxious about China’s intentions. Australia is the most directly affected: If Chinese warships start patrolling the South Pacific, Australia’s lengthy eastern coastline will suddenly require protection. “We won’t be having Chinese military naval bases in our region on our doorstep,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declared. Japan’s chief cabinet secretary has said that when his prime minister meets with the leader of similarly worried New Zealand, “there will be a vigorous discussion.”
This tough talk doesn’t seem to have derailed the deal. Sogavare is said to have promised that no Chinese base would be permitted, but he denounced Australia’s reaction as “theatrical and hysterical”; he later implied that Australia was comparing his nation to a toilet. Americans were apparently unconvinced that building bases was truly off the table. The White House issued an unusually blunt public statement: “If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation,” it warned, “the United States would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly.”
Is China intent on creating a military presence far removed from its own soil but uncomfortably close to that of several apprehensive rivals? If China is now complementing its financial engagement with competition in the “hard power” arena as well, the U.S. (and its partners) are unlikely to be able to counter with stepped-up economic investment. Australia is the largest aid donor to the Solomon Islands, but its charity is dwarfed by Chinese trade and investment. The U.S. delegation sent to the Solomons brought more threats than promises, and nothing remotely comparable to the cornucopia of yuan provided by China.
“China is certainly increasing its security presence throughout Asia,” Collin Koh Swee Lean, of Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told me. “But that doesn’t mean the goal is force projection. They may just be sending a message: ‘We’re here, so you’d better get used to it.’”
Some of China’s assertiveness under Xi has been more symbolic than real. Beijing’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy—confrontational talk in situations where Deng Xiaoping and his successors assiduously shunned controversy—focuses on rhetorical flourish rather than concrete action. South China Sea machinations cause the most concern for the U.S. and its partners, but these are not existential conflicts: They typically involve improbable construction projects on uninhabitable pieces of coral. Even if China builds a military base in the Solomons, it will double its overseas bases to … two; the U.S. has something like 800 military bases in about 70 nations and territories.
China’s newfound assertiveness may prove to be a bluff, but that’s not how it’s viewed by those who watch the region closely. “Even a small base could be a game changer throughout the South Pacific,” Medcalf noted. The impact on America’s security is indirect, but significant: Every Australian ship or plane that has to be kept Down Under is a military asset unavailable to support U.S. efforts elsewhere.
The Battle of Guadalcanal was immensely costly to both sides, and in the end may have been superfluous. The bloody island-hopping campaign (which would continue for two more years) laid the foundation for an Allied invasion of Japan—but this invasion never actually occurred. America dropped two nuclear bombs on the country in August 1945, and Emperor Hirohito surrendered a week later without another shot being fired. Perhaps the current Solomon Islands contest, and military jockeying throughout Asia, will prove similar: China’s economic power is its nuclear option, and any military adventurism may turn out to be little more than a pricey backup option.
But China has explicitly committed itself to increased military engagement throughout the region, and has backed up that pledge with real-world action. Perhaps it is simply natural for a dynamic, on-the-rise superpower not to content itself merely with brandishing its billfold, and decide to flex its swelling muscles. Nations small and large alike, however, are watching this display of newfound potency with concern.