The Peace Corps, a volunteer program established by John F. Kennedy, was set to return to the Solomon Islands in October 2019 after a two-decade absence. The move was part of a series of actions by the United States to counter China’s growing influence in Pacific island nations like the Solomon Islands. However, more than four years later, the Peace Corps has yet to arrive, despite volunteers returning to other Pacific nations such as Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa following the suspension of operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Peace Corps has been struggling to secure funding from the US Congress to support its work in the Solomon Islands. Only $500 was allocated for the program’s work in the archipelago for the fiscal year 2024. While there has been no official indication from Washington or Honiara that the return of the Peace Corps is not proceeding as planned, there are suspicions that the government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is deliberately stalling for political reasons, possibly to placate China.
A former US official familiar with the negotiations to bring back the Peace Corps stated that the Chinese influenced the Solomon Islands cabinet’s decision to pause approval for the Peace Corps to return to the islands. The official also mentioned that the agreement appeared to have been postponed indefinitely. The US State Department, US embassy in Honiara, and the Peace Corps declined to provide a comment on the matter.
The apparent difficulties in the Solomon Islands point to the limits of Washington’s ability to counter China’s rising influence in the Pacific. The Solomon Islands, under Sogavare’s leadership, has pursued deeper relations with China, including ending its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of recognizing China and signing security and policing agreements with Beijing.
The delays in the Peace Corps’ return may help bolster a narrative that the US has neglected the Pacific, according to some experts. The US was not popular with everyone in the Solomon Islands, and China’s expansion into the Pacific has offered an alternative source of funding and benefits for the country. However, Western officials fear that China’s largesse may be laying the groundwork for an expanded military presence in the Pacific.
Despite the geopolitical stakes involved, US officials believe that Sogavare’s tilt towards Beijing may be as much about domestic politics as international relations. Sogavare’s approach to governance has won him significant attention from both the US and China, including meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and US presidential adviser Kurt Campbell.
The delays in the return of the Peace Corps to the Solomon Islands have raised questions about the influence of China in the region and the geopolitical dynamics at play. The situation reflects the challenges faced by the US in countering China’s growing presence in the Pacific and the complex relationships between the Solomon Islands, the US, and China.
World, Politics, Conflict