Why the Solomons is mulling China diplomatic switch

Honiara (AFP) –


China looks poised to gain an ally in the strategic Pacific region this month as a new Solomon Islands leadership sours on decades of "useless" diplomatic ties to Taiwan.

While no final decision has been announced on whether to switch allegiance, Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare gave a brutal assessment of 36 years of ties to Taipei in what he beleived were confidential remarks to an Australian academic.

"To be honest, when it comes to economics and politics, Taiwan is completely useless to us," Sogavare told the Australian National University's Graeme Smith in an interview aired in a podcast earlier this month.

Sogavare has been under intense pressure since his election in April from parliamentary colleagues who see little benefit in staying with the shrinking band of nations that officially recognise Taipei.

He said China was seen as more likely to provide significant infrastructure funding to the impoverished nation, where less than 50 percent of the population have access to electricity.

"There's this perceived view as well that they (China) are doing great in other countries," he told Smith in July.

"My colleagues... are sitting back and sending signals saying 'let's go, let's go' (with China)."

Sogavare also said that switching to China would give the Solomons greater leverage over traditional regional powers.

He cited Fiji, which shrugged off sanctions imposed by Australia and New Zealand following a 2006 military coup by boosting relations with China.

"They can flex their muscle (and say) 'you behave yourself (or) I have another friend here'," he said.

Sogavare has since said his remarks were meant to be off the record, but they give an insight into the diplomatic chess game playing out between Taiwan and China in the Pacific.

When the Solomons opted to recognise Taiwan in 1983, China was yet to experience the transformation that would turn it into the world's second largest economy.

Beijing has used its financial muscle to poach five diplomatic allies from Taipei since 2016, intent on isolating an island it sees as a rogue province resisting unification.

Taiwan has 17 remaining allies, with the Solomon Islands the largest and most populous of the six located in the Pacific.

- Decision 'very soon' -

Enticing Honiara to switch would be a diplomatic coup for Beijing as it prepares to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1.

Formal recognition of Beijing is expected to provide a greater boost to investment and development aid than Taiwan is capable of providing.

"Chinese enterprises, as well as the Chinese government, definitely hope to provide assistance in infrastructure, employment and other aspects," Zhao Shaofeng of the Pacific Islands Research Centre at China's Liaocheng University told AFP.

Bonnie Glaser, a Taiwan and China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Taipei had played an important role in helping the Solomons develop its agriculture and food security.

But she acknowledged that Taiwan knows it has little chance of being able to outspend China.

"Taipei no longer sees value in checkbook diplomacy. It cannot compete dollar-for-dollar with the PRC anywhere in the world."

Pro-China advocates in Honiara see the swtich as a win-win -- extra aid and development money flowing from China, while existing donors such as Australia and New Zealand would remain.

Fears that ethnic tensions and a chronically corrupt government would turn the Solomons into a failed state prompted a Canberra-led peacekeeping mission from 2003-13.

Even if Honiara transferred allegiances to China, Australia would not consider withdrawing its aid programmes and again risk having such instability on its doorstep.

A series of reviews have been commissioned since Sogavare's election to examine the issue.

A joint taskforce of politicians visited China-aligned countries in the Pacific, ministers travelled to Beijing and a parliamentary committee has been hearing submissions.

Taskforce head John Moffat Fugui said his report had been submitted to the government and would be discussed by the top officials on Tuesday.

He did not reveal what the taskforce had recommended but said the matter would be resolved "very soon".

"I think the prime minister is going to take the decision to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York and he will make the announcement there," he told reporters on Friday.