Solomon Islands eyes shift in diplomatic ties to China from Taiwan

By Jonathan Barrett
A Solomon Islands flag waves at the top of a flagpole which at the bottom reads "Sao Tome" in front of a building housing most of the embassies of Taiwan's official allies, in Taipei

By Jonathan Barrett

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Solomon Islands, one of Taiwan's few remaining diplomatic allies, has formed a team of ministers to talk to Beijing ahead of a possible switch in ties that could be unveiled as early as this week, the chief of a parliamentary panel said.

The Pacific island nation has recognized self-ruled Taiwan since 1983 but would be a prized chip for China in its bid to peel away the allies of what it considers a wayward province with no right to state-to-state ties, taking their number to 16.

"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, told Reuters.

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

A task force charged with evaluating the Taiwan ties returned from a tour of Pacific nations allied to China just before a mid-August visit to Beijing by eight Solomons ministers and the prime minister's private secretary.

"It doesn't take much imagination to work out what the task force will recommend," added Kenilorea, whose panel will review the recommendations.

The task force, set up by new Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare after a general election in April, could present its recommendations as early as this week, parliament schedules show.

The government has said the ministerial group only visited Beijing.

Both the task force and panel of ministers were clearly leaning toward Beijing, said a government lawmaker who declined to be named, but did not rule out the possibility of a surprise.

The Solomons' task force and government officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Taiwan's Foreign Ministry, in a statement on Monday, said its understanding was the Solomons would also consider the views of other government departments and politicians and any decision would also need to be discussed by the Cabinet and parliament.

Mutual interactions recently have been "normal," the ministry added, including the signing of a visa-waiver agreement last month by Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and Sogavare.

"These all show cooperation between the two countries is smooth and communication without obstacles."

The Solomon Islands-China Friendship Association, which represents China in the island nation, said that while it was not privy to political discussions, it appeared that the government was split over the issue.

"At this point, it remains unclear whether the Solomon Islands government will agree on a switch to China or remain with the status quo," it told Reuters in an emailed statement.

Speaking in Beijing on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang declined to answer specific questions on the Solomons, saying only that China was willing to have relations with all countries on the basis of the "one China" principle.

That refers to China's stance that Taiwan and it both belong to one China.

China, which fears that President Tsai Ing-wen wants to push for Taiwan's formal independence, has mounted a concerted campaign to lure away its remaining diplomatic allies.

El Salvador in Central America, along with Burkina Faso in West Africa and the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean, all severed ties with Taiwan last year.


Graphic: Tug of war in the Pacific - https://graphics.reuters.com/PACIFIC-SAMOA-CHINA/0100B0D30T6/PACIFIC1.jpg


LOOMING DECISION

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

That money goes to a controversial health development fund that anti-graft agency Transparency Solomon Islands says has links to vote-buying.

But Solomons lawmakers say the fund has been used to promote health services, with a government website listing sanitation and health projects among its successes.

After an aggressive push over the past decade, China has become the largest two-way provider of funding in the Pacific, but only to nations with which it has formal ties.

The United States has accused it of using "predatory economics".

The issue of the switch in ties threatens to divide the small Solomons archipelago of just over 600,000 people.

Sixteen MPs cited potential "compromised freedoms" as a reason against the switch in an open letter last month.

The task force recommendation would need to be reviewed and ratified before any switch, and the public can offer its views.

Many students oppose the change, said Ishmael Aitorea, a student at the University of the South Pacific in the capital, Honiara.

"Taiwan has been faithful in giving us aid; a lot of us don't trust China," Aitorea added.


(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett in SYDNEY; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Yimou Lee in TAIPEI; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)