WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — When China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in April it raised concerns from the U.S. and its allies that Beijing may be seeking a military outpost in the South Pacific, an area of traditional American naval dominance.
But China upped the ante further this week, reaching out to the Solomon Islands and nine other island nations with a sweeping security proposal that, even if only partially realized, could give it a presence in the Pacific much nearer Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and on the doorstep of the strategic American territory of Guam.
China insists its proposals are targeted at regional stability and economic growth, but experts and governments fear that beneath the surface, it is a brazen attempt to expand its influence in a strategically critical area.
David Panuelo, the president of Micronesia, one of the nations targeted by China, warned the others against signing on, saying it “threatens to bring a new Cold War at best, and a world war at worst.”
“Aside from the impacts on our sovereignty ... it increases the chances of China getting into conflict with Australia, Japan, the United States and New Zealand on the day when Beijing decides to invade Taiwan,” Panuelo warned in a letter obtained by The Associated Press, noting China has not ruled out using force to take the self-governing island, which it claims as its own territory.
A draft of the proposal obtained by The Associated Press shows that China wants to train Pacific police officers, team up on “traditional and non-traditional security” and expand law enforcement cooperation.
China also wants to jointly develop a marine plan for fisheries, and raises the possibility of a free trade area with the Pacific nations.
It targets Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands, Niue and Micronesia — and pointedly leaves out the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu, all of which recognize Taiwan as a country.
Like many other nations, the U.S. has a “one China” policy, which does not recognize Taiwan, but also opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo.
The islands dot a vast area of ocean between the continental United States and Asia, and were a center of the Pacific Theater fighting during World War II following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
After the U.S. fleet decisively beat Imperial Japan’s navy at the Battle of Midway in 1942, it embarked upon a campaign to take them back from Japan, starting with the invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and including fierce battles for the Tarawa atoll, now part of Kiribati, Peleliu, which is one of the Palau islands, and Guam.
Though the nearest is thousands of kilometers (miles) from Taiwan, they are nonetheless strategically important to China, should it invade the island.
From a military perspective, a Chinese presence on some of the Pacific islands would mean a better ability to delay U.S. naval assets and disrupt supply lines in case of a conflict, said Euan Graham, a senior fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
“You only have to look at a map to deduce the basic logic of what China is up to,” he said.
“This is prime real estate. Most of it is water, but if you connect up those islands, archipelagos, that's an island chain that runs between Australia and the United States, between Australia and Japan.”
China dispatched its top diplomat, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, this week to visit seven of the island nations and hold virtual talks with the other three in the hope they will endorse the agreement on May 30 at a meeting in Fiji.