In 2010, then-Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi uttered a now-infamous threat to Southeast Asian nations: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” The issue at hand was Beijing’s heavy-handedness in the South China Sea, which would only intensify over the next few years as the People’s Republic of China constructed and militarized artificial islands. Beyond violating its neighbors’ territorial waters, the Chinese Communist Party has also targeted South Korean companies over Seoul’s missile defenses, exploited Sri Lanka’s debt crisis, and pressured Lithuania over its ties with Taiwan.
For its part, the United States has capitalized on the ongoing excesses of China’s foreign policy to cast itself as a trustworthy partner that respects all nations, regardless of stature or power. According to the Biden administration’s own Indo-Pacific Strategy, America’s goal is to help nations make “independent political choices free from coercion.”
But today, in the far-flung corners of the Pacific Ocean, America is failing its own test.
When news broke in late March that China and the Solomon Islands had inked a port-access agreement in the South Pacific, senior Biden administration officials rushed to Honiara, the capital, to convince its leaders to scrap the deal. Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, walked a thin line between gentle pressure and veiled warnings, saying: “If steps were taken [by China] to establish a de facto permanent military presence … then we would have significant concerns and we would very naturally respond to those concerns.” When journalists asked whether such responses could include military action, Kritenbrink refused to rule it out. Before dismissing that possibility as unlikely, remember that earlier this year then-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the prospect of a People’s Liberation Army military base in the Solomon Islands a “red line.”