SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - In a December speech, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described Washington's vision for Asia - or what U.S. officials have come to call the "free and open Indo-Pacific."
"When we say that we want a free and open Indo-Pacific ... we mean that on a state level, that individual countries will be able to choose their own path and their own partners," Blinken said.
When discussing their Asia strategy, U.S. officials like Blinken frequently focus on the plight of smaller countries, saying they should be free to make their own decisions, especially in the face of rising Chinese coercion.
But what happens when a small Asian country chooses closer ties with China? That's what happened this month, when the Solomon Islands, a tiny island chain in the South Pacific, announced it had signed a security pact with Beijing.
When a draft of the agreement leaked in late March, alarm bells sounded in Washington. The United States quickly announced it would send a senior delegation to the Solomons, a rare step for a country of only about 700,000 people.
But the U.S. delegation, which included top White House Asia official Kurt Campbell, arrived too late to persuade the Solomons to drop the deal, which by then had already been confirmed by officials in both Beijing and Honiara.
Neither country has disclosed the details of the security pact, but the draft deal, which is believed to mirror the final agreement, said if both sides agreed, Chinese warships could dock on the islands and that Beijing could send forces to help maintain "social order."
The United States and its regional allies fear the deal could pave the way for China to establish a permanent military presence. The concern is perhaps most acute in Australia, which is only about a three-hour flight from the Solomons.
FILE - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 9, 2019.
The Solomon Islands' embattled prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, has insisted he will not allow the creation of a Chinese military base. Instead, Sogavare, whose fragile government faced deadly riots last year, said the deal would help provide domestic security. His assurance seems to have done little to alleviate U.S. concerns.
During their visit to the Solomon Islands last week, the senior U.S. officials issued a vague but direct warning to Sogavare's government, according to a White House readout of the meeting.
"If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities or a military installation, the delegation noted that the United States would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly," the statement said.
U.S. officials have since refused to outline what retaliatory steps they could take. Instead, they point to their plan for expanded diplomatic and economic engagement with the Solomons, as laid out during the trip - even while repeating the same vague warning.
"We have respect for the Solomon Islands' sovereignty. The Solomon Islands will make its own decisions. But we tried to be clear how those decisions may implicate American national interests," said Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, who was part of the U.S. delegation.
It is a tricky situation for the United States, which wants to protect its interests but does not want to be seen as violating principles, such as noncoercion, which lie at the heart of its stated approach to Asia. Some analysts in the region say the United States is failing in this regard.
"They've issued a coercive threat. And it's public and it's obvious and it's on White House letterhead," said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official who teaches at New Zealand's Victoria University of Wellington. "We want them to do what we want them to do, I mean, how much clearer can it be?"
Although the Solomon Islands has emerged as a strategic battleground between the United States and China, it is far from the only location where the rivalry is playing out.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has steadily expanded its military presence beyond its shores, most notably in the South China Sea, where it has created military outposts over the objections of its neighbors, who have overlapping territorial claims with China.
But as of now, China has established only a single overseas military base - a naval facility in the East African country of Djibouti. And although China is also reportedly considering a base in Equatorial Guinea on Africa's west coast, Beijing is not close to challenging the global military influence of the United States, which maintains a network of more than 700 bases in more than 70 countries.
FILE - Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton holds a meeting at Parliament House in Canberra on Dec. 13, 2021.
Should China be trusted?
But there are reasons not to trust China's long-term intentions in the region, according to many observers - especially in Australia, where officials have pointed to Xi's 2015 promise to not militarize the artificial islands it had created in the South China Sea.
'President Xi looked [former U.S.] President [Barack] Obama in the eye and said that the 20 points of reclaimed islands on the South China Sea would not be militarized. Today they are militarized,' Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said in a recent interview.
Even in the Solomon Islands, some fear the consequences of inviting security forces from an increasingly authoritarian government that does not embrace democratic values.
"China has a totally different system of government. Solomon Islands is not familiar with that system," said Matthew Cooper Wale, the Solomon Islands opposition leader who opposes the security pact.
"Such distinctions are not merely theoretical. When it comes to national security, they will affect how and what training is conducted, how arrests are done, the manner in which courts function, the extent to which individual rights can be expressed, and ultimately, how the rule of law is perceived," Wale said in a recent editorial.
Another concern is that the presence of Chinese security forces could exacerbate the Solomons' ethnic and political tensions, which as recently as November led to demonstrations and riots that attempted to oust Sogavare's government.
Much of that civil unrest was related to the Solomon Islands' 2019 decision to recognize China instead of Taiwan. The government of Malaita, the Solomons' most populous province that has long felt neglected, opposed that decision. It refused to accept any aid from Beijing and demanded a referendum on independence.
Under a bilateral agreement, Australian forces were sent to quell the November unrest. They remain in the Solomons. If tensions were to again worsen and Chinese troops also were dispatched, some analysts warn that two separate powers could be present in the same country, each with an interest in supporting different sides of the conflict.
"What will we do if that turns out to be a civil war where under one arrangement - the Australian treaty with the Solomon Islands - a democratic government calls on Australia to intervene in a civil disturbance that might be supported by China? You just can't have two security forces in the same country," said Richard Herr, a law professor at the University of Tasmania in Australia.
Anna Powles, a Pacific security expert at New Zealand's Massey University, agreed. "If the Solomon Islands governments collapsed, which force would have supremacy? You would essentially have two command control lines operating. A huge scope for miscommunication and accidents," she said.
Despite the risks, Sogavare has decided on a framework to welcome Chinese forces - a move he said would 'diversify' his country's security. And the U.S. has little power to stop it, barring a major shift in approach that looks beyond the military dimension for a sustained period of time, some analysts warn.
'The U.S. has been absent from the region for a long time,' said Powles, who thinks Washington should spend more time building relationships in the Solomons, as well as offering major health development programs and infrastructure items.
"I don't think it's too late,' she said. 'This deal is about the immediate for Sogavare. But it means the type of smart diplomacy we haven't seen yet."