Americans Return to Guadalcanal, This Time to Face Beijing

Americans Return to Guadalcanal, This Time to Face Beijing

The marines had gathered at a pink marble war memorial in Honiara, the Solomon Islands capital, at the end of a three-month Pacific island tour with an Australian naval fleet. “It strengthens our relations with these countries ahead.”

Pacific Pushback
Four Australian warships left Townsville in June for voyages of 2-3 months, touring island states to strengthen ties and joining international exercises in Hawaii.

Note: Lines show countries and ports on itinerary, not actual routes.

Source: Australian Defense Ministry

Today’s contest is taking shape around China, its expanding military and its ambitious use of loans and aid to gain influence around the globe. Beijing has made commitments in the past year in the Pacific that, if realized, would make it the region’s second-largest donor after Australia.

Chinese navy ships regularly brush up against U.S. allies in the region. A Chinese missile-tracking ship docked in Fiji the same day the Australian Navy visited in June, while a Chinese Navy hospital ship was doing rounds of the region. Last year a Chinese spy ship was spotted off Australia’s northeast coastline during a U.S.-Australia naval exercise.

“Being here shows the commitment in the clearest possible way of the U.S. and allies to this region,” said Marines Capt. Charles Jedlicka, one of around 50 Marines who joined Australia’s largest warship, the HMAS Adelaide, on the tour of the Pacific, where China’s presence is becoming more visible.

Papua New Guinea in June became the first Pacific country to sign up to China’s One Belt One Road, an initiative to build a global network of ports, railways, roads and pipelines. Chinese companies have helped redevelop a port and airport in the second largest city, Lae.

Port investments are seen by security analysts as potential opportunities for Chinese military expansion in the region. Last year, Sri Lanka’s government, unable to repay a Chinese loan for a port, granted a Chinese company a 99-year lease on the facility.

Islands of Influence
Australia, the U.S. and other allies are ramping up efforts to counter China’s rising clout in the South Pacific.

The Australian missile frigate HMAS Toowoomba arrives in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara as dock workers and an aid official watch. Faced with China’s rising South Pacific influence, Australia and the U.S. are pushing back through stepped-up military and diplomatic contact with small island nations.

Rob Taylor/The Wall Street Journal

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The Pentagon, in an annual report on China, predicted Beijing would “seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan”—another country dogged by debts from a Chinese-financed building spree.

“China continues to improve both the size and the capability of its armed forces, in hopes to supplant the U.S. as the security partner of choice—not just in the Indo-Pacific region, but across the globe—and on its own terms,” the new commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip S. Davidson, said in Hawaii in May.

The Pentagon says China’s expanding economic interests are forcing the People’s Liberation Army to operate in “more distant maritime environments” to protect Chinese citizens and investments.

The Chinese naval hospital ship Peace Ark, shown here moored in Fiji in 2014, embarked from China in late June bound for the South Pacific. Photo: /Lincoln Feast/Reuters

Senior Col. Wu Qian, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman, said such activities were “completely fair, legitimate and reasonable” and that China adhered to peaceful development: “We do not seek hegemony or a sphere of influence.” China’s foreign ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In response to China’s growing clout, the U.S. is deepening military ties with allies such as Australia and other Pacific countries. This year, Tongan Marines participated in the Rim of the Pacific exercise in Hawaii, traveling there with Australia’s Navy; Fiji has been invited to join in 2020.

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Old colonial powers are reasserting themselves, too. The U.K. this year announced three new diplomatic posts in the Pacific, while France gained a de facto seat at one of the most important regional groups—the Pacific Islands Forum—when its Pacific territories joined. Britain’s Royal Navy this year sent three ships to the Asia-Pacific, after an absence of almost five years.

Australia, long the main western security power in the South Pacific, is modernizing its military in a $150 billion buildup of its navy and amphibious forces. Visits by Australian military commanders to the Pacific have almost tripled in recent years, to 23 last year from eight in 2015.

“Donald Trump wants U.S. allies to step up. We’re stepping up,” said Capt. Jim Hutton, commander of Australia’s four-ship Pacific task force, referring to the U.S. president’s call for other nations to shoulder more responsibility for international security.

During the task force’s recent visit to Honiara, two Australian military helicopters evacuated four civilians wounded in a machete attack on a remote island; U.S. Marines restored the war memorial and distributed aid, concluding a tour that included stops in Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Papua New Guinea and Samoa.

Many of the stores lining Honiara’s potholed main street are owned by recent Chinese migrants. “Islanders aren’t too good at making money, and so we end up working for Chinese who are,” said Henry Lima, a 24-year-old clerk, as he sat outside a hardware store. His boss, who had just arrived from southern China, watched on.

Australian warships with U.S. Marines on board arrived in Honiara, Solomon Islands, in August, pushing back against China’s influence through stepped-up military and diplomatic contact with small island nations. Photo: Rob Taylor/The Wall Street Journal

—Jeremy Page in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Rob Taylor at rob.taylor@wsj.com and Rachel Pannett at rachel.pannett@wsj.com

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