China is expanding its Belt and Road network across the Pacific's watery "Blue Continent" to eventually reach North, Central, and South America plus the Antarctica.  ©copyright-by-richard_s_ehrlich-IMG_0003ps5cpcr.jpg

BANGKOK, Thailand -- China and the U.S. are competing for liquid real estate, undersea resources, and military advantage among the South Pacific's isolated island nations, and trying to manipulate their economies, airstrips, seaports, and security forces.

China is widely perceived as expanding its Belt and Road network across the Pacific's watery "Blue Continent" to eventually reach North, Central, and South America plus the Antarctica, and empower Beijing's military, markets, international policies, and diplomacy.

On May 2, China scored a victory when the strategic Solomon Islands elected pro-Beijing Prime Minister Jeremiah Manele, 55, formerly foreign minister in the China-friendly government of outgoing prime minister Manasseh Sogavare.

The U.S., Australia, New Zealand and their allies were already worried because the two countries signed a 2022 bilateral Solomon Islands Security Agreement.

Critics feared the China-Solomon Islands pact could allow Beijing to construct a navy base on the islands, 1,200 miles (2,000 kms) northeast of Australia.

China and Solomon Islands said the pact would not result in a Chinese military base on the nation's six main islands or 900 smaller islands.

"We are not stupid to ask for a military base, as we ourselves could be a target for a military strike in the future in the event of an armed conflict between the major powers," Mr. Manele, then foreign minister, told Parliament in 2022.

“Having a stable Solomon Islands is also about securing stable and prosperous Pacific region," he said.

China trained Solomon Islands' police, provided water cannon vehicles, and boosted their anti-riot tactics after unrest, some of it anti-Chinese, disrupted the islands.

Protests, riots, arson and looting erupted in 2021 after Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019 when Mr. Manele was foreign minister.

Australia, under its joint security pact with Solomon Islands, sent police to the islands' capital Honiara to quash the civil unrest.

Mr. Manele was expected to continue Solomon Islands friendly relations with China which dramatically strengthened during the administration of outgoing prime minister Sogavare who selected Mr. Manele to be a prime ministerial candidate.

Solomon Islands will be "friends to all, and enemies to none," Mr. Manele said.

China's recent construction of an airfield on Guadalcanal, the largest of Solomon Islands, evoked chilling reminders of America's World War II Battle of Guadalcanal to seize it from Japan.

In 1942, Guadalcanal island suffered the first large U.S. military offensive to stop Japan's use of the Solomons to air bomb ships sailing between the U.S. and Australia.

After winning control of Solomon Islands and other island nations, U.S. forces hopscotched west across the Pacific under intense hostile fire, and helped defeat Japan.

Today, many of Solomon Islands' 720,000 citizens say they favor Mr. Manele not for his international stance, but in hopes his Ownership, Unity and Responsibility (OUR) Party will upgrade the islands' poor health care, transportation infrastructure, electricity supply, schools, employment opportunities, housing, and other daily needs.

Solomon Islands is one of the world's poorest nations.

China granted Solomon Islands a $66 million loan so the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei could construct mobile telecommunications towers on its islands.

Huawei also won a 2018 contract for underwater telecommunication cables to and from the islands, financed by Solomon Islands and Australia.

In 2023, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and the Cook Islands sent delegates to hear China's plan to strengthen law enforcement and security cooperation during a meeting billed as a "Ministerial Dialogue on Police Capacity Building and Cooperation Between China and Pacific Island Countries in Beijing."

In a joint 2023 statement, Solomon Islands reportedly agreed to Beijing's positions on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet.

"China has been on the front foot across the Pacific for many years, doing trade and security deals with island countries, while the U.S. is only now stepping up with new embassies opening in Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Tonga," said Ben Bohane, a Vanuatu-based Pacific political analyst and photojournalist.

"From an island point of view, the competition has given them leverage for the first time as various powers come to court them -- not just China and the U.S. but Arab countries, Israel, Japan and even India," Mr. Bohane said in an interview.

Meanwhile on the island nation of Kiribati, a "Chinese police delegation team works with the Kiribati Police Service to assist a community policing program, and martial arts kung fu, and an IT (information technology) department, assisting our crime database," Kiribati's acting Police Commissioner Eeri Aritiera told Reuters in February.

About a dozen Chinese cops in uniform landed for a six month rotation in 2023 and have since been refreshed.

"We do not believe importing security forces from [China] will help any country," the U.S. State Department told government-run Voice of America (VOA) in February when asked about Kiribati and China.

Kiribati is 1,305 miles (2,100 kms) south of Hawaii, and established relations with China in 2019 after cutting out Taiwan.

China is planning how to finance the revamping of a 6,562 ft (2 km) runway on Kiribati's Kanton Island, a coral atoll which had been a major stopover for military and commercial aircraft during World War II.

China and Kiribati agreed to upgrade Kanton into an imagined tourism destination attracting Chinese tourists who would also visit the country's other islands.

If financed by China and built, the airstrip on Kanton would be for passenger flights, including within Kiribati's chain of islands, but not for military use, Kiribati said.

Kiribati also receives financial assistance from the U.S., Canada, Japan, the European Union, and others.

"Australia is supporting the Kiribati Police Service with major upgrades to its policing infrastructure, including a new barracks and headquarters and radio network," Australia's Foreign Affairs Department told Reuters in February.

Kiribati's islands are splattered in four sectors across the map, where the International Dateline intersects the Equator.

Some islands are east of the Dateline while other islands are on the west side, and some islands are north of the Equator while some are below it.

Kiribati claims more than 3.5 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean's territorial rights -- one of the planet's biggest exclusive economic zones.

"Pacific nations have long felt their infrastructure needs have not been met, so if traditional partners like Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. don’t provide the wharves and roads and airports, then it is hard for them to tell island countries not to accept assistance from China," Mr. Bohane said.

Washington influences some control over three island nations -- Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau -- under The Compacts of Free Association (COFA).

Under the agreement, signed in 2023, the Pentagon can land troops and weapons on COFA's territories and block other countries from doing so.

The U.S. military is popular among many COFA citizens who joined the U.S. armed forces as a fast track to become American citizens after serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

COFA's tiny Palau invited the Pentagon to build ports, bases and airfields on its islands, after feeling economically exploited and destabilized by China's overwhelming wealth, according to Palau President Surangel Whipps.

Under COFA, the U.S. agreed to pay $7 billion over the next 20 years in assistance to Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau.

In February however, "the funding was dropped from the security supplemental in the U.S. Senate, under pressure from conservatives who wanted to lower costs," VOA reported.

"With no amendment process permitted, the funds could not be added back in."

A mangled COFA could wreck the islands' confidence in U.S. backing, critics said.

It "opens the door for China to make similar overtures to the COFA nations," Hawaii's Senator Mazie Hirono warned.

America depends on a Three Island Chain to buffer the U.S. west coast from China's eastern shores, a concept rooted in 1951 during the U.S.-Korea War to guard against the Soviet Union and China.

The First Island Chain includes Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo, and other islands closest to China in the increasingly weaponized and contested South China and East China seas.

The Second Island Chain is further from China and links Guam and the Mariana Islands, Palau, Yap, and islands further south.

The Third Island Chain runs south from the Aleutian Islands, through the center of the Pacific and the Hawaiian Islands, to American Samoa, Fiji, and New Zealand.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978, and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondents' Award. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at