“The visit this week of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to the Solomon Islands comes on the heels of the country’s alarming decision to enter into a security pact with China.

“Since the announcement of the agreement in April, the U.S. and allies like Australia have scrambled to reengage with the critical Pacific islands region, with increased aid and other measures.

“But as the Solomon Islands’ increasingly close relationship with China shows, Beijing is making definite inroads in the region. It is encouraging that the Biden administration and its partners are waking up to the risks of neglecting these vital partnerships, but it is not enough simply to throw money at the problem.

“The U.S., Japan, Australia, New Zealand and other allies must be able to demonstrate the value of partnering with democracies in contrast to the risks that would come with closer relations with China. This should include helping to strengthen the democratic institutions that will enable Pacific island nations to withstand authoritarian pressure and deliver more equitable development outcomes for their citizens.

“Such measures are key to demonstrating that citizen-centric governance best serves the interests of the people of the Pacific islands, in contrast with top-down Chinese “assistance” that can corrode democratic institutions and fail to deliver promised results.

“Sri Lanka’s economic and political collapse has occurred in no small measure because investments under China’s Belt and Road Initiative produced damaging corruption, reinforced an authoritarian elite and incurred inordinate external debt without delivering broad-based economic returns. The result has been a crisis that has turned what was until recently a prosperous, upper-middle-income country into one where half the citizenry has fallen into poverty.

“The U.S. can work with Pacific island partners to enhance inclusion — hardly a priority for Beijing. The Pacific islands have the lowest levels of female representation in the world. Youth engagement in politics is low, and there are significant societal barriers to LGBTQ inclusion.

“As the U.S. increases its engagement in the region, the Biden administration, as well as its allies in Tokyo, Canberra and Wellington, must expand their focus beyond government-to-government relations. Deeper partnerships should include attention to prominent women’s and youth groups and to representatives of marginalized communities, including persons with disabilities as well as religious and ethnic minorities.

“Political transparency and accountability will build resilience against what Beijing continues to offer: secret, corrupting deals that put national sovereignty and regional security at risk.

“Delivering targeted assistance is important. Yet enhanced ties must be grounded in something larger than simply outbidding rival authoritarian powers. Superior strategic and economic outcomes will come from partnering with the people of the Pacific islands to ensure that democracy delivers, enabling their societies to withstand foreign predation and to prosper through development that benefits all citizens.”

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