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Leaked draft of an agreement between China and the Solomon Islands has U.S. concerned

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Eighty years ago, American and Japanese forces fought an epic battle at Guadalcanal in the South Pacific - a battle to gain control of the Solomon Islands. Today, the islands are once again a focus of international concern - this time over fears of China getting a toehold there. NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Last week, China and the Solomon Islands announced that they'd signed a security cooperation agreement. According to Beijing, it's a perfectly normal thing for two sovereign, independent nations to do. Here's Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WANG WENBIN: (Through interpreter) China's Solomon Islands security cooperation is open, transparent and inclusive and does not target any third party.

RUWITCH: Details of the agreement have not been made public, but a draft was leaked last month, and it set off alarm bells in Australia and the United States. If the final version is unchanged, China will be able to deploy police or soldiers to the Solomon Islands for training and to help maintain order. It could also make naval ship visits.

Despite denials from Beijing and Honiara, there's concern that China could eventually even open a naval base there. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that would cross a red line, and senior U.S. officials visited the Solomon Islands to explain Washington's stance. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink was one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL KRITENBRINK: We told the Solomon Islands leadership that the United States would respond if steps were taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power projection capabilities or a military installation in the Solomon Islands.

RUWITCH: China has been cultivating relations with the Solomons and other Pacific Island nations in recent years, quietly converting economic clout into diplomatic cachet. Its navy has been growing rapidly, too, giving rise to the perception that America's far bigger footprint in the Pacific is under threat.

TARCISIUS KABUTAULAKA: Western countries have had dominance in the region for a long time, particularly in the post-Second World War period.

RUWITCH: Tarcisius Kabutaulaka is a political scientist at the University of Hawaii.

KABUTAULAKA: And so China's increasing influence and its assertive influence in the region means that it's challenging that dominance.

RUWITCH: And that's a big deal, according to Anne-Marie Brady, a professor of political science at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Even without a military base in the Solomons, an established Chinese presence there - with the government's blessing - will change the dynamic in the region.

ANNE-MARIE BRADY: It has a number of impacts. It will have a chilling effect across the Pacific. It puts Australia at risk. You know, remember the Cuba Missile Crisis?

RUWITCH: It will give China a perch near key shipping lanes - and right in between the U.S. and its allies.

BRADY: It could enable China to cut off Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island states from the U.S., and vice versa, and could have a major impact on the Indo-Pacific strategy of the U.S.

RUWITCH: But there's a potential catch. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is behind the security deal and has pushed for better relations with China. He cut ties with Taiwan in 2019. That proved unpopular and sparked violent protests in November. Graeme Smith is a fellow at the Australian National University's Department of Pacific Affairs. He says there's an election coming up in the Solomons soon, and Sogavare's security deal with China will loom large.

GRAEME SMITH: Politically, will it play well for him? It's really hard to say. I mean, no - and this is a fun fact - no Solomon Islands prime minister has gone to an election and come back as the prime minister.

RUWITCH: But whether or not he or the deal survive, China's presence in the region is likely to keep growing.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.