It is hard to believe that people in the Solomon Islands still like Taiwan even two years after their countries broke diplomatic ties with each other.
Did the conflict between Communist China and democratic Taiwan spread to the South Pacific island nation of Solomon Islands?
It would seem so if we look at what happened from Nov. 24 to 26 in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands.
At the beginning, there was significant unrest against the government, however this quickly turned into hatred towards the Chinese community living in the Solomon Islands.
According to the Solomon Star newspaper, many Chinese families have lost everything and are now homeless following the widespread looting and burning of shops and properties last week.
Rioters burned down the China Town in Honiara and police found three dead bodies on Saturday (Nov. 27) from the debris.
The Solomon Islands Chinese Association (SICA) issued a statement condemning the violence and looting on Nov. 28.
“SICA condemns, in the strongest possible terms, the senseless widespread looting and burning of shops and properties that have endangered the lives of many innocent individuals and families, including indigenous Solomon Islanders. Many Chinese individuals and families have lost literally everything and are also homeless,” the SICA said.
Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea deployed police and security forces to restore the peace in the island nation. The situation has been returning to normal.
Why did the Chinese become a prime target for rioters?
According to the Global Times, there are 3,000 Chinese citizens living in Solomon Islands, the third biggest archipelago in the South Pacific. More than 90 percent of them live in Honiara.
The Solomon Islands, which consists of six major and over 900 small islands, has a population of 710,535 people. Most islanders are Melanesian but speak some 87 native languages. It became independent from Britain on July 7, 1978.
Taiwan, or Republic of China, established diplomatic relations with the Solomon Islands on March 24, 1983, and maintained cordial relations until 2019. Taiwan played a major role in the education, health sectors as well as development of the infrastructure in the Solomon Islands.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not like Taiwan’s friendship with Solomon Islands. China considers Taiwan as a renegade province, but Taiwan claims itself as an independent country.
The Solomon Islands’ current Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, used to be a great fan of Taiwan but later shifted his loyalty to China.
In recent years, according to rioters, who are mainly from the most populous province of Malaite, China paid bribes to parliament members and political leaders to shift the Solomon Islands’ recognition to China from Taiwan.
In 2019, the Solomon Islands Parliament withdrew its recognition of Taiwan and established diplomatic ties with China.
This angered many in Malaite because Taiwan provided various types of assistance to the people there for 36 years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan sent 50 million tons of rice to Malaite.
Currently, only 15 countries, mostly small ones, recognize Taiwan as an independent country.
The Guardian reported in 2019 that China offered a bribe ranging between $246,000 to $615,000 per legislator. Pro-China members claimed that they received offers of up to $1 million from Taiwan. Both China and Taiwan rejected these allegations. Finally, China won the battle, but it divided the country into two groups: pro-China and pro-Taiwan.
The people in Malaita, the biggest province, are still loyal to Taiwan.
Malaita premier Daniel Suidani said in a statement recently that Sogavare had “elevated the interest of foreigners above those of Solomon Islanders” and should resign.
Protesters lashed at the government for corruption, lack of accountability and public services as well as foreigners stealing job opportunities from locals.
Demonstrators are also calling for the Sogavare’s government to limit ties with China, respect the rights of self-determination of the Malaita people, and to resume development projects in Malaita province.
More than 100 people have been arrested as of Nov. 27, according to police, who appealed to rioters to stop looting and burning buildings and warned of further arrests if the unrest does not stop.
Sogavare said on Nov. 26 that he stood by his government’s decision to embrace Beijing, which he described as the “only issue” in the violence.
He has blamed foreign interference in the unrest without naming any country.
“I’m not going to bow down to anyone. We are intact, the government’s intact and we’re going to defend democracy,” Sogavare said.
China strongly supported Sogavare.
“We support the government’s efforts to end violence and chaos. We are confident that under Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s leadership, the government of Solomon Islands can restore social order and stability soon,” Zhao Lijian, spokesperson of China’s Foreign Ministry told the Global Times.
Zhao also emphasized the one-China principle as a basic norm governing international relations. “All attempts to disrupt the normal development of relations between China and the Solomon Islands are just futile,” Zhao said.
Many people in the Solomon Islands agree that the foreign policy switch to Beijing with little public consultation was one of a mix of issues that led to the protests. There were also complaints that foreign companies were not providing jobs to locals.
“Chinese businesses and [other] Asian businesses … seem to have most of the work, especially when it comes to extracting resources, which people feel strongly about,” Gina Kekea, a local journalist, told the ABC.
It is the typical Chinese way of investing in a foreign country and bringing its own raw materials, equipment and even workers.
It was not the first time that the Chinese were targeted in the Solomon Islands.
In 2006, some Chinese businessmen helped one particular politician to win the election, which led to widespread riots. Chinatown was attacked and many shops were burned down. China evacuated its citizens from the Solomon Islands.
Apparently, according to some observers, Australia was quick to intervene in the Solomon Islands to avoid having Chinese forces in its neighbourhood.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Nov. 25 sent troops, police and diplomats to the Solomon Islands to restore peace and normalcy there. It was true that Sogavare had asked Australia’s help.
“The Solomon Islands reached out to us first … as family because they trust us and we’ve worked hard for that trust in the Pacific,” Morrison said.
“That is our region and we’re standing up to secure our region with our partners, our friends, our family and allies.”
Australia has previous experience in the Solomon Islands.
Australia led an international police and military force called the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands that restored peace in the country after bloody ethnic violence between the Istabu Freedom Movement and Melaite Eagle Force from 2003 until 2017.
It is a unique situation in which thousands of people in Malaite province are expressing their anger against China, which only focuses on making quick profits while ignoring local conditions and people’s expectations.