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Showdown in the Pacific

Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele at a ceremony in Beijing. Noel Celis/Getty

If you were asked to name a country with “zero strategic significance”, says Gideon Rachman in the FT, “the Solomon Islands might sound like a good shout”. A remote Pacific archipelago of around 1,000 tiny islands, with perhaps 700,000 people scattered across them, the Solomons seem “safely distant from great power politics”. But the tiny nation has become a crucial flashpoint in the strategic rivalry between China and the West. After years of neglect by Australia and the US, its government signed a “security pact” with Beijing in April, potentially opening the door to a Chinese military base on the islands. Washington sent diplomats to try to repair the damage, without success; Australia’s foreign minister called the security deal her country’s “worst foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since World War Two”.

The reason the Solomon Islands are so important is because they lie across vital sea lanes connecting Australia, east Asia and the US west coast. That’s why America fought so hard to reclaim them from Japan in the 1940s, losing more than 7,000 troops in the process. Today, China hawks in the West are convinced that Beijing plans to invade Taiwan, so any military build-up in the region affects the delicate balance of power. A Chinese base in the Solomons would “significantly complicate” Australia’s strategic calculations, to say nothing of the other Pacific nations who may also be susceptible to Beijing’s overtures.

🥥🛶 John F Kennedy owed his life to the Solomon Islands, says BBC News. In 1943, the future president was commanding a patrol torpedo boat in the archipelago when it was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. He and the other survivors swam three-and-a-half miles to an unoccupied island, Kennedy towing one injured crewmate “with the strap of his lifejacket between his teeth”. They were eventually spotted by two islanders in a canoe, who raised the alarm with Allied forces via a coded message Kennedy carved on to a coconut. JFK later used the fruit “as a paperweight on his desk in the Oval Office”.