HONIARA, 10 JUNE 2019 (SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST) —Last month, after heated elections in the Solomon Islands, the Taiwanese combat support ship Pan Shi arrived on the shores of Taipei’s main ally in the South Pacific. With a flash of a thumbs up, Roger Luo, Taiwan’s ambassador, was joined by the Solomon Islands’ Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele on deck.
“Taiwan-Solomon Islands relations are shipshape and Bristol fashion!” Taiwan’s foreign affairs ministry said, using the 19th century phrase coined for the western English port city and posting photos of the meeting on social media.
But this past week, Manele signalled that the islands’ relationship with Taiwan may be on the rocks within 100 days and Taipei may be abandoned in favour of ties with Beijing, local media reported.
The loss of Taiwan’s largest official partner in the South Pacific after September could trigger a domino effect on others, analysts said.
It may also strengthen mainland China’s Pacific presence, where the PLA Navy has vied with the United States and Australia.
Manasseh Sogavare, the Solomon Islands’ new prime minister, said on Wednesday that there was a “super long list” of factors for his government in Honiara to consider, including domestic development and other countries’ experiences with Beijing.
“We are under a lot of pressure now to rethink this relationship,” he told ABC, the Australian national broadcaster, on Wednesday. “We have this relationship [with Taiwan] premised on some important fundamental principles with the United Nations, and it would be sad to see us moving away.”
In recent years, Beijing has increased the pressure on Taiwan’s international presence by wooing its diplomatic allies. The mainland claims sovereignty over Taiwan, and has not renounced the use of force to bring it back into the fold.
Diplomacy is also one of Beijing’s tools as it seeks to undermine the government of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.
Since 2016, five of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies – El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, Panama, and Sao Tome and Principe – have switched their allegiance to Beijing.
Washington has openly urged Taiwan’s allies in the Pacific not to switch sides, as the region becomes the latest battleground for China and the US.
When asked if the US was engaging with the Solomon Islands on the Taiwan issue, a spokeswoman for the State Department said Washington would continue to support the self-ruled island as it “resists efforts to constrain its appropriate participation on the world stage”.
“The United States opposes unilateral actions by any party aimed at altering the status quo,” she said.
Jian Zhang, director of China engagement at University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australia Defence Force Academy, said that when Pacific countries became Beijing’s allies, they provided mainland China with an opportunity to extend its presence in a strategically important area.
If the Solomon Islands switched to Beijing, it could have a domino effect on other Taiwanese allies, creating a “serious problem” for Taipei, he said.
“The government in Taiwan currently is in a very difficult situation. This is largely because the balance of power and the balance of influence is relatively shifting in [mainland] China’s direction,” Zhang said.
“Taiwan still has increasing support or informal support from the US, but that kind of support cannot stop other countries from adopting diplomatic ties with Beijing, for it is growing economic power and opportunity that Beijing provides.”
Mainland China was the dominant trading partner for the Solomon Islands in 2017, when bilateral trade reached US$2.7 billion, outpacing the US$174 million in trade with Taiwan and the US$12.7 million with the US.
Analysts said economics were paramount for Pacific nations like the Solomon Islands, one of the poorest countries in the world with a gross domestic product per capita of US$2,242 in 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The US recently stepped up its engagement with the region. Last month, President Donald Trump met the presidents of the Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia – which make up the Freely Associated States – as Washington turned an “unprecedented level of focus on the Pacific Islands”.
Australia has provided the bulk of overseas aid to the Solomons and last year persuaded it to abandon an undersea fibre-optic cable project with mainland’s telecoms company Huawei. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged US$250 million in grant aid to the Solomon Islands last week.
“The countries themselves will weigh the benefit and cost to switch diplomatic ties,” Zhang said. “If [the Solomon Islands] switch to Beijing … there will be limited damage to their relationship with the US or Australia. The decision will largely be the result of domestic debate within the islands.”
While in September the US recalled its ambassadors from three Latin American countries that dropped ties with Taiwan after El Salvador did so in August, analysts said this strategy would not be so effective in the Pacific, where US influence is comparatively small.
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific islands programme at the Australian think tank Lowy Institute, said that the US did not have the same “stick to wield” in the Pacific, adding that Solomon Islands’ decision would come down to whether it saw Taipei or Beijing as the most helpful ally in its development.
“To boil it down in a crude sense – it’s really the highest bidder that will win,” Pryke said. “It’s hard to fault the Solomon Islands for taking this position … there are not many countries engaged on the ground in the Solomons.
“The US does not have a whole lot of leverage in a lot of these Pacific countries, yet they wag their finger at them saying, ‘be careful’, when they do not even have a diplomatic presence in the country.”
The US maintains a consular agency in the Solomons. In February, Washington took the islands into its Millennium Challenge Corporation’s Threshold programme for developmental help, which the Pacific nation said it had tried for years to join.
Pryke said that Australia would not interfere with the Solomon Islands’ sovereign decisions, despite its concerns about Beijing’s intentions, including the possibility of a military base.
“The reality is, because we’ve invested so much into the Solomon Islands’ stability and our interests in the Solomon Islands, we do not want to spend our political capital on something like the Taiwan-[mainland] China relationship,” Pryke said. “At the end of the day, it’s up to Taiwan to work assertively to try to maintain these relationships.”
Andrew Lee, a spokesman for Taiwan’s foreign ministry, said last Wednesday that the Solomon Islands would not abandon its long-standing relations as most members of its 50-seat parliament supported ties with Taiwan.
David An, senior research fellow at the Washington think tank Global Taiwan Institute and a former US State Department official, said the Solomon Islands’ 100-day assessment might be a negotiating tactic to gain more support from Taiwan.
While Beijing had a higher budget for international aid, Taiwan could offer long-term partnerships in education, public health and agriculture, he said.
“These are not as flashy as the US$100 million commercial port projects, stadiums or government offices that China provides, but they are politically and economically sustainable, without any semblance of a ‘debt trap’,” he said.
“Plus, countries working with Taiwan will be working with a constitutional democracy committed to a free and open society and politics.”
The Solomon Islands’ foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. (PACNEWS)