Since AMTI’s last 2019 feature on Chinese strategic inroads in the Pacific Islands, the region has seen marked political shifts as well as continued strategic attention from China and the resident powers of Australia, France, New Zealand, and the United States. While Beijing has yet to realize a basing agreement in the Pacific Islands, it has continued to elevate its engagement with the region and secured a landmark security pact with the Solomon Islands in 2022. Amid continued anxiety about China’s growing influence, major political, economic, and security initiatives are underway by the United States and Australia to shore up their own strategic interests.

This feature highlights and contextualizes new strategic initiatives in the Pacific Islands since 2019, including new military facilities and security agreements, diplomatic overtures, and major investments.

Explore a map of strategic initiatives and facility upgrades above and read on for details on U.S., Australian, and Chinese strategic investments and outreach in the Pacific.

The United States

Alarmed by Beijing’s overtures in the region, in recent years Washington has sought to upgrade its military facilities and shore up relations with a long list of traditional allies and partners in the Pacific.

Washington is making upgrades on its territory of Guam, where in January 2023, Marine Corps Base Camp Blaz was opened. The 4,000-acre base was partially funded by Japan as part of deal struck under the Obama administration to relocate approximately 5,000 Marines from Okinawa.

In another U.S. territory, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, construction began in 2022 at Tinian International Airport on facility upgrades including a new parking apron, taxiway, and fuel storage facility to create a divert airfield for the U.S. military.

The Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau allow U.S. basing—and deny military access to those countries by any outside party without U.S. consent—in return for economic and migratory benefits to their citizens. The 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy called the COFAs the “bedrock of the U.S. role in the Pacific,” and those countries have proven proactive in trying to attract a greater U.S. military presence in recent years.

The Marshall Islands hosts U.S. Army Garrison Kwajalein, which includes the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site. In 2022, the Pentagon designated Palau the site of a new $197 million tactical radar system aimed at spotting air and surface targets. In January and February this year, memoranda of understanding were signed with all three countries in a breakthrough for negotiations on renewing the three COFA agreements, which are set to expire in 2023 for the Marshall Islands and FSM and in 2024 for Palau. In May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken witnessed the signing of framework agreements for the extended COFA with Palau while the agreement with FSM was signed in a separate ceremony.

Washington is also crafting a more coherent diplomatic outreach in the region. In February 2022, the United States announced plans to reopen its embassy in the Solomon Islands. In May, at the 2022 Tokyo Quad Leaders’ Summit, the Pacific Islands was listed as the first of three target regions for the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), a program to gather and release commercial remote sensing data to regional partner countries to combat illegal activities at sea. In July, Vice-President Kamala Harris announced the establishment of new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, and was a virtual participant (a first for a U.S. leader) in the 2022 Pacific Island Forum where she laid out U.S. priorities including the naming of a permanent envoy to the forum, the return of the Peace Corps to the region, and the re-establishment of USAID regional missions. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman embarked on a regional tour to Samoa, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Australia, and New Zealand in August asserting the prioritization of the region to President Biden. The president followed up in September by hosting the first U.S.-Pacific Islands Summit in Washington, which culminated with the signing of the Declaration on U.S.-Pacific Partnership and the release of the Pacific Partnership Strategy.

In May, President Biden’s planned trip to Papua New Guinea (PNG), the first ever by a sitting U.S. president, was postponed due to the debt ceiling negotiations in Washington. Secretary of State Blinken attended instead and signed a defense cooperation agreement with PNG. The text of the deal was presented to PNG’s parliament on June 14 for debate, and reportedly provides for “unimpeded access” to U.S. forces for “mutually agreed activities” at Lombrum Naval Base, Port Moresby Seaport, and airports in Port Moresby, Lae, and Momote. The deal is on schedule for a ratification vote in August.

Along with engagement with the Pacific Islands, the United States’ alliance with Australia is a cornerstone of its regional strategy and has received significant attention over the last two years. In 2021, the United States and Australia, together with the United Kingdom, unveiled AUKUS, a trilateral pact to provide Australia with conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) and cooperate on the development of advanced military technologies for decades to come. In March 2023, the three countries unveiled details of the plan to sell U.S. Virginia-class submarines to Australia, rotationally deploy U.S. and UK SSNs to Australia in the meantime, and eventually produce a new trilaterally developed “SSN-AUKUS” submarine.

The United States also maintains a military presence in Australia through the rotational deployment of strategic bombers and the 2011 Marine Rotation Force Darwin agreement, which has allowed up to 2,500 U.S. Marines to rotationally deploy in Northern Australia until at least 2025.

By September 2023, the United States expects the facilities to which it has access in Darwin to be upgraded with a $270 million fuel storage facility as part of a larger $1.1 billion upgrade that also includes runway extensions and resurfacing.


Australia remains the resident power in the South Pacific and maintains extensive diplomatic, economic, and military relations across the region. Amidst reports of Chinese efforts to establish a military footprint in the Pacific, Australia has in recent years shifted its foreign policy focus to re-prioritize the Pacific Islands and upgrade its own defense capabilities.

Australia is upgrading several military facilities across its Northern and Eastern territories, including air bases, piers, and fueling facilities. RAAF Tindal south of Darwin is undergoing a $496 million upgrade that includes improvements to the airfield, fuel storage, and troop accommodations. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported in late 2022 that the upgrades would facilitate the rotational deployment of six U.S. B-52 bombers.

Meanwhile, HMAS Coonawarra at Larrakeyah Defense Precinct on the west end of Darwin is receiving a new 820-foot wharf and fuel farm. The new wharf will allow Australia’s landing helicopter dock ships, HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide, as well as similarly sized U.S. Navy amphibious ships to dock there rather than share space at Darwin’s civilian wharf.

As it prepares to receive its first SSNs through AUKUS, Australia is considering three possible locations for a new naval base to host its submarines on the country’s east coast.

On its western coast, Australia is planning $5.5 billion in upgrades to naval base HMAS Stirling to support U.S. and UK rotational submarine forces under AUKUS, with plans to eventually port Australian-operated Virginia-class submarines by the 2030s. In the south, Osborne Naval Shipyard is set to triple in size as part of plans to develop a new submarine construction yard that will build the new SSN-AUKUS-class submarine.

Apart from upgrades through AUKUS, the United States and Australia are increasing rotational military forces in Australia including bomber and fighter aircraft. In a joint statement after annual Australia-United States Ministerial (AUSMIN) talks in December 2022, the two allies also said they would expand locations of U.S. Army and Marine Corps forces in Australia, ramp up military infrastructure projects, and seek to include Japan into future force posture initiatives.

Australia also maintains robust security relations with Pacific partners and currently has three active military operations in the Pacific to complement its Pacific Step-Up Initiative and maintain maritime surveillance. The Australia-funded Pacific Fusion Centre, created in 2019 to serve as an assessment and advisory center to aid Pacific policymakers on national security matters, commenced operations at its permanent headquarters in Port Vila, Vanuatu, in December 2021. This will be joined by an Australia Pacific Defence School announced in 2022 to train Pacific military personnel. Most recently, there have been reported discussions within the Albanese government to embed Pacific Island troops into the Australian Defence Force to boost regional military cooperation, a move that would be welcomed by PNG, the largest Pacific Island military force.

Australia has also been proactive in its diplomatic presence since the Labor Party’s victory in 2022, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong having visited every Pacific Island nation in her first year in office. Wong gave a speech in Fiji assuring Pacific countries that Australia is a reliable partner that does not come with “strings attached” and she successfully secured an eight-year partnership with Samoa to address human development. In December 2022, Wong presided over the signing of a multi-topic security pact with Vanuatu during a bipartisan Australian delegation tour aimed at bolstering regional ties. She scored another diplomatic win in February, signing an agreement with Kiribati to bolster security and development relations.


In the last four years, China has scored both significant strategic successes as well as setbacks on some ambitious initiatives—both of which have fueled anxieties among the resident powers about China’s intentions in the region.

In September 2019, China scored two critical diplomatic victories when Kiribati and the Solomon Islands abandoned relations with Taiwan in favor of China. This laid the foundation for a security pact signed in April 2022 between the Solomons Island and China which provides for Chinese “police, armed police, military personnel, and other law enforcement forces” to operate in the country under certain circumstances. The deal also provides for Chinese ships to stop, replenish, and receive logistical support in the Solomon Islands, which has heightened concerns about potential dual-use port facilities.

The deal’s signing was followed up by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s regional tour of the Pacific in May 2022 which culminated in a failed attempt to convince Pacific leaders to sign an expansive trade and security agreement. Despite this rebuff, Wang was able to sign 52 bilateral agreements with Pacific countries on a range of issues including Belt and Road Initiative projects and climate change. This was followed by a November 2022 video meeting between China and various Pacific representatives on increasing law enforcement cooperation. And in February 2023, Beijing appointed Qian Bo (the  former Chinese ambassador to Fiji) as the inaugural Special Envoy for Pacific Island Countries Affairs.

Alongside these diplomatic victories have been a series of less successful Chinese-backed infrastructure proposals that, while triggering alarm bells in Washington and Canberra over their potential strategic utility, have so far been either rejected, canceled, or seen little progress.

Solomon Islands

In 2019, just after the Solomon Islands’ diplomatic recognition of China, news broke that China’s SAM Enterprise Group intended to lease the island of Tulagi, which features a deep-water harbor capable of hosting naval forces, for exclusive development rights over a 75-year period. This caused a domestic scandal and the deal, reached with local officials, was quashed by the national government. Statements by provincial officials in the Solomons reveal a continued interest by Chinese businesses to lease land. This includes a 2020 project proposal between China SAM Enterprise Group and a Chinese state-owned aerospace and defense group subsidiary to study “opportunities to develop naval and infrastructure projects on leased land for the People’s Liberation Army Navy…with exclusive rights for 75 years.”

In March 2023, the Solomon Islands announced that a Chinese firm had won a multi-million dollar contract to upgrade an international port in the capital of Honiara. But Solomon officials have said the project will not expand beyond commercial use.

Papua New Guinea

In February 2021, the press obtained documents detailing plans by a Hong Kong-registered company to build a multi billion dollar city on Daru Island in PNG. These reports fueled speculation that the project, which reportedly included plans for a port and industrial zone as well as commercial and residential districts, was another attempt by China to secure a strategic foothold in the Pacific. But a spokesman for PNG’s prime minister James Marape told media that he was unaware of the project, and Australia’s then-prime minister Scott Morrison dismissed the reports as “noise” and doubted that Port Moresby would entertain such a deal. No new reports about the project have emerged, and satellite imagery confirms that no major construction is underway on Daru Island.


Then in May 2021, Reuters reported that China had approached Kiribati with plans to upgrade the airstrip on the remote island of Kanton, which was originally built and operated by U.S. forces during World War II. Kiribati officials acknowledged China’s support for a feasibility study on the project but said the plans were aimed at developing the island into a tourist destination. Satellite imagery from April 2023 showed no construction activities underway.


And in July of 2021, incoming Samoan prime minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa canceled a $100 million Chinese-backed plan for the construction of a wharf in Vaiusu Bay citing concerns over the country’s growing debts to China and saying that the scale of the project went beyond Samoa’s needs.


So far, China’s purported ambitions have outpaced its success in securing strategic access in the Pacific Islands. While Pacific Island nations have been keen to seize economic opportunities from China, only the Solomon Islands has agreed to any security arrangement, and in some cases it has suffered setbacks on security cooperation: Fiji’s Prime Minister Rabuka has put a 2011 policing agreement with Beijing under review while inking a new security pact with New Zealand.

Meanwhile, the United States and Australia have belatedly begun leveraging their long-standing relationships and forward posture in the region to ramp up diplomatic and security initiatives, offering alternatives to countries who may otherwise have felt compelled to make strategic concessions in exchange for Chinese investment. Through a combination of new agreements with Pacific Island countries, deepening bilateral defense cooperation, and reinvestment in their own military facilities and forces, Australia and the United States are shoring up their strategic dominance in the Pacific.