Taipei, Taiwan – In October 2019, the United States announced that the Peace Corps, the storied volunteer programme established by John F Kennedy, would return to the Solomon Islands after a two-decade absence.
The announcement was the latest in a flurry of moves by Washington to counter China’s growing presence in Pacific island nations like the Solomon Islands, a sparsely populated but strategically located archipelago that lies about 2,000km northeast of Australia.
More than four years later, the Peace Corps has yet to arrive, even as volunteers have returned to other nations in the Pacific such as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa following the suspension of operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the meantime, the Peace Corps continues to miss deadlines to secure funding from the US Congress to support its work in the Solomon Islands. Just $500 was allocated for the programme’s work in the archipelago of about 700,000 people for the fiscal year 2024.
Neither Washington nor Honiara have officially given any indication that the return of the Peace Corps is not proceeding as planned.
But behind the scenes, there are suspicions that the government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is deliberately stalling for political reasons – specifically, to placate China, which has made major inroads in the archipelago in recent years.
“The Chinese influenced the Solomon Islands cabinet’s decision to pause approval for the Peace Corps to return to the islands,” a former US official, who is familiar with the negotiations to bring back the Peace Corps, told media on condition of anonymity.
The ex-official said that, based on discussions with officials involved in the negotiations, the agreement appeared to have been postponed “indefinitely”.
“Initial euphoria over the US announcement that Peace Corps Volunteers would return was dampened by senior Solomon Islands officials as they introduced delay after delay in negotiating the Peace Corps agreement,” the former official said.