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Speculation is increasing that the Solomon Islands will shift its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China.
A task force set up by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare after his re-election in April to evaluate the Solomons’ ties with Taiwan is expected to report as early as this week. Reuters reported Sogavare’s government had sent a team of eight ministers and his private secretary to Beijing last month.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry was deliberately vague when asked about any meetings between the government and representatives from Honiara and the possibility of the Pacific nation recognising Beijing.
“As is known to all, there is but one China in the world,” spokesman Geng Shuang said. “The Chinese government stands ready to develop friendly and co-operative relations with countries around the globe on the basis of the one-China principle.”
The Solomon Islands is one of only 17 countries that still recognise Taiwan. Six are Pacific Island nations. Beijing has stepped up pressure on countries to shift their political ties to China following the election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016.
Over the past year El Salvador in Central America, Burkina Faso in West Africa and the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean have shifted their allegiance to Beijing.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison chose the Solomon Islands as his first overseas visit after his re-election in May, a move designed to show his commitment to his Pacific “step-up” policy.
“It’s still pretty much touch and go,” former Australian high commissioner to the Solomons, James Batley, told The Australian. Batley, now a researcher at the Australian National University, said the issue had been “under discussion for some months since the April election”.
“There had been a bit of talk in the lead up to the election that it was time for the Solomon Islands to switch from Taiwan to China,” he said. “It crystallised after the election. The PM sought to address it by setting up this task force to look at the question.”
Batley said he felt there were deep divisions on the issue in the islands. He said the government would need to make a final decision on any diplomatic change after it received the report. But he said the Taiwanese government was becoming increasingly anxious at the potential of the loss of another supporter in the region.
Bates Gill, professor of Asia-Pacific security studies at Macquarie University, said China had been working hard to switch countries from Taipei to Beijing.
“It matters because those remaining official ties with Taipei directly contradict Beijing’s claims to sovereignty over Taiwan — something Chinese leaders cannot abide,” he said. “If the Solomon Islands switch to officially recognise Beijing, it will be yet another blow to Taiwan’s international status and will mark another important move in China’s own ‘step-up’ in the western Pacific.”
Professor Gill said it was hard to predict the reaction of the Trump administration to any shift in policy by the Solomon Islands.
“When El Salvador recognised Beijing over Taipei last year, the White House and members of congress threatened various punitive measures, none of which came to be,” he said.
“We should expect similar recriminations should the Solomon Islands make the switch.”
The Solomons has had diplomatic relations with Taiwan since 1983. Diplomatic relations with the Solomons, the most populous of the Pacific states recognising Taiwan, would be a coup for China, given their strategic location between Papua New Guinea and Fiji, which recognise Beijing.
China is already the Solomons’ largest trading partner with exports worth more than $320m a year, or 65 per cent of the total.
China has been particularly focused on winning the support of the six nations in the Pacific, offering large amounts of aid and grant money.
Morrison pledged $250 million (US$169 million) for infrastructure during his lightning visit to the Solomons in June.
SOURCE: THE AUSTRALIAN/PACNEWS
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