Officers at the U.S. foreign aid agency reacted with alarm to news of a controversial security pact between China and the Solomon Islands, describing the agreement as “very troubling” and “affectionate”, a newly released internal email showed.
The email, obtained by Al Jazeera through freedom of information demand, shows how officials at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) scrambled to respond to reports earlier this year that Beijing strives to strengthen security ties with small countries in the Pacific Islands. .
The Chinese government and the Solomon Islands officially signed a controversial pact in mid -April, despite concerns raised by the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, who fear the establishment of Chinese military bases in the strategically located archipelago, home to several countries. the most intense war in World War II.
Beijing and Honiara both denied intentions to build military bases beyond the pact, a leaked draft that allows visits to Chinese warships and the deployment of Chinese police at Honiara’s request to maintain “social order”.
In an email responding to a New York Times article about the proposed pact sent on March 28, Ryan Washburn, director of USAID missions to the Philippines, the Pacific Islands and Mongolia, expressed alarm about the agreement.
“No! This is very annoying, ”he said in an email to colleagues.
“Yes. Very scary, ”Regina MacKenzie, then USAID deputy director to the Pacific, replied in an email. “We’re assigning a related task to Craig [Craig Hart, acting senior deputy administrator for Asia] right now. He should come to FO later today.
After China and the Solomon Islands continued to sign the pact within months, USAID officials again expressed concern.
In an email sent on April 20, Sean Callahan, regional coordinator for the Pacific Islands and Mongolia, likened the news of the pact to the Solomon Islands decision in 2019 to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan to choose China, which refuses to establish formal diplomatic relations. and countries that recognize Taipei.
“It’s true it’s deja vu all over again and we have to travel when the switch happens before the UNGA [UN General Assembly] in September 2019,” Callahan said. “The press and academia in Canberra and Wellington made the same comparison from 2019, as well, referring to that we are again ‘played’ by the PM.”
In a separate email thread on April 19, Callahan stated that some observers on social media believe that the signing of the pact was deliberately carried out before the arrival of a bipartisan delegation of U.S. lawmakers to the archipelago.
“Twitter rang last night about this with an Australian audience, with some noting it was signed yesterday and done deliberately before the USG [US government] delegation was arriving in Honiara,” he said.
“I see a mention that the PRC MFA [Chinese Foreign Ministry] announced it but I’m not sure whether it’s accurate.”
USAID did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.
Last week, senior White House officials said that Washington is preparing to announce major initiatives aimed at resolving issues of concern for Pacific Island countries, including climate change and regional security.
Kurt Campbell, the top national security official for Asia, said that the Biden administration will announce plans to “set a complete engagement” with countries in the region this week.
The initiative comes after China in May failed to secure an agreement for sweeping trade and security pacts with 10 Pacific Island countries that would have dramatically increased its influence in the region.
Tess Newton Cain, project leader for the Pacific Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute in Brisbane, Australia, stated that Washington’s move to improve relations with Pacific Island countries after years of “mostly absent”.
“This has been achieved in a number of ways, including closing the embassy, withdrawing Peace Corps volunteers and cutting aid to the area,” Newton Cain told Al Jazeera.
“In the Solomon Islands, there is a long and tedious process to implementing an MCC project that is likely to have a huge impact – which in Vanuatu for sure – but will likely take forever to start,” added Newton Cain, referring to Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. aid agency which operates independently of USAID and the U.S. Department of State.
“However, that doesn’t mean if these things are already implemented, security agreements won’t be signed. I think the main driver for this is domestic and generally driven by domestic politics.