The US says it will open an embassy in the Solomon Islands as it tries to increase its influence in the South Pacific nation before China becomes “strongly embedded”.
The plan was confirmed by US secretary of state Antony Blinken after he landed in Fiji on Saturday on a Pacific tour that began in Australia and will finish in Hawaii.
The State Department said Solomon Islanders cherished their history with Americans on the battlefields of the Second World War, but that the US was in danger of losing its preferential ties as China “aggressively seeks to engage” elite politicians and business people in the Solomon Islands.
The move comes after rioting rocked the nation of 700,000 in November as stores were looted and buildings set on fire.
The riots grew from a peaceful protest and highlighted long-simmering regional rivalries, economic problems and concerns about the country’s increasing links with China.
Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare survived a no-confidence vote the following month, telling legislators in a fiery 90-minute speech that he had done nothing wrong and would not bow down to “the forces of evil”, or to “Taiwan’s agents”.
The US previously operated an embassy in the Solomons for five years before closing it in 1993. Since then, US diplomats from neighbouring Papua New Guinea have been accredited to the Solomons, which has a US consular agency.
The embassy announcement fits with a new US strategy for the Indo-Pacific that was announced on Friday and emphasises building partnerships with allies in the region as a way to counter China’s growing influence and ambitions.
In its notification to US congress, the state department said China had been “utilising a familiar pattern of extravagant promises, prospective costly infrastructure loans, and potentially dangerous debt levels”, when engaging with political and business leaders from the Solomon Islands.
“The United States has a strategic interest in enhancing our political, economic, and commercial relationship with Solomon Islands, the largest Pacific Island nation without a US embassy,” the state department wrote.
The US state department said it did not expect to build a new embassy immediately but would at first lease space at an initial set-up cost of 12.4 million dollars (£9.1 billion). The embassy would be located in the capital, Honiara, and would start small, with two US employees and about five local staff.
The state department said the Peace Corps was planning to reopen an office in the Solomon Islands and have its volunteers serve there, and that several US agencies were establishing government positions with portfolios in the Solomons.
“The Department needs to be part of this increased US presence, rather than remaining a remote player,” it wrote.
During his visit to Fiji, Mr Blinken met with acting prime minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and other Pacific leaders to talk about regional issues, especially the existential risk posed by climate change.
It was the first visit by a US secretary of state to Fiji since 1985.
Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said he welcomed the renewed US engagement in the region and Joe Biden’s move last year to rejoin the Paris Agreement.
He said that in the past, Pacific island nations had sometimes felt overlooked by larger nations as “flyover” countries.
“Small dots spotted from plane windows of leaders, en route to meetings where they spoke about us rather than with us, if they spoke of us at all,” he said.
Mr Blinken arrived in Fiji after visiting the Australian city of Melbourne where he met his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan.
The four nations form the so-called “Quad”, a bloc of Indo-Pacific democracies that was created to counter China’s regional influence.