China, US rivalry in Pacific may heat up as Solomon Islands looks to switch ties from Taipei to Beijing

Laura Zhou

Rivalry between China and the United States in the South Pacific is expected to intensify, with the Solomon Islands reportedly in talks with Beijing about potentially switching diplomatic ties from Taipei after 36 years.

A task force charged with evaluating the country’s Taiwan ties returned from a tour of Pacific nations allied to Beijing just before a mid-August visit to the Chinese capital by eight Solomon Islands ministers and the prime minister’s private secretary, Reuters reported on Monday.

The Solomon Islands is one of only 17 countries that recognise Taiwan, six of which are in the Pacific. Beijing – which sees Taiwan as a renegade province with no right to state-to-state ties – has sought to squeeze the self-ruled island diplomatically by trying to persuade its remaining allies to switch recognition since independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016.

According to parliament schedules, the task force – set up by Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare after he was re-elected in April – will present its recommendations as early as this week, the report said.

“There’s a certain thinking with the current government and executive to switch,” Peter Kenilorea, an opposition lawmaker who chairs a foreign relations parliamentary committee, was quoted as saying.

“The amount of money that has already been spent by the government on this is quite telling.”

An anonymous government lawmaker told Reuters that both the task force and panel of ministers were clearly leaning towards Beijing, though there was the possibility of a surprise.

Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not confirm the reported visit by Solomon Islands ministers. Photo: AP

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not confirm the visit, saying only that Beijing was willing to develop friendly relations with other countries based on the one-China policy.

While a diplomatic switch by the Solomon Islands would deal a blow to Taiwan’s presence in the region, observers said it could also fuel the competition between Beijing and Washington and its allies in the South Pacific.

China is now the top trading partner and a major aid provider to most South Pacific nations, and its growing presence – mainly through big infrastructure projects like roads, bridges and ports as well as aid programmes – has raised concern in Washington. The US has long maintained exclusive defence access in the region through its Guam military base and security pacts with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.

During a visit to Micronesia last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underlined concerns about China’s growing influence in the region, saying the security agreements with the three nations would “sustain democracy in the face of Chinese efforts to redraw the Pacific”. Negotiations are under way to renew the deal, known as the Compact of Free Association.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper last week said there was an urgency for the US to find new ways to project American power in the Asia-Pacific because “China’s investment in a reconnaissance-strike military complex has matured”.

A report last year that Beijing was planning to build a permanent naval base in Vanuatu also stoked fears about China’s increasing assertiveness in the region, particularly in the US and Australia. The report was denied by both China and Vanuatu.

Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst with the Rand Corporation, said Washington and Canberra would continue trying to prevent or at least curtail China’s rising economic and diplomatic influence over Pacific nations.

“If the Solomon Islands switches ties to China, then Beijing might have an opportunity there in the future,” Grossman said.

Washington has previously weighed in when countries have switched allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing. Last year, the White House said “the economic health and security of the entire Americas region” would be affected when El Salvador cut ties with Taipei and established relations with Beijing.

Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, said Canberra would be wary about Beijing’s presence in the South Pacific “because of the idea that massive Chinese influence in the South Pacific reduces its leverage in what it perceives to be leadership in the South Pacific”.

“Inevitably, China’s rising influence in the South Pacific will create an anxiety in Australia and in Washington,” he said.

The Pacific has been a diplomatic stronghold for Taiwan, where formal ties with island nations make up more than a third of its total alliances. It pledged US$8.5 million to the Solomons in 2019-20, according to budget documents.

Explained: how Taiwan’s Pacific allies are being wooed by mainland China

Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands programme in Australia, said that while the Solomon Islands was unlikely to have a domino effect if it severed ties with Taiwan, Beijing’s expanding influence would be under scrutiny in the region.

“Australia and the US also benefit from the Pacific also having no interest in further militarisation. Australia and the US are right to remain vigilant, however, because should China choose to engage more strategically and less opportunistically they can bring major resources to bear in the region. The ball is now in China’s court to show how far their strategic ambition goes in the Pacific,” he said.

But Chen Hong, director of the Australian Studies Centre at East China Normal University in Shanghai, said Canberra had been “hypersensitive to the growing positive reception by Pacific nations to China”.

“Claiming the South Pacific as ‘our patch’ and ‘sphere of influence’, as an adherent to America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, Australia has been taking significant steps to try to fend off and push out the existence and influence of China,” Chen said.

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