In a huge blow to self-ruled Taiwan, which lost six allies since 2016, and to Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, who is seeking re-election in January 2020 amid rising tensions with China, the Solomon Islands’ government voted to severe its longstanding ties with Taiwan and take up diplomatic relations with Beijing. With the largest remaining ally in the region switching relations to Beijing, Beijing now extends influence in the Pacific. The move sparked protests in the Solomon Islands.
The Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan, had established diplomatic relations with the Solomon Islands in 1983. The Pacific nation was Taiwan’s biggest ally in the South Pacific with a population of around 600,000. The Solomon Islands is the latest country to switch allegiance to China since Tsai came to office in 2016, following Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, São Tomé and Príncipe, Panama and El Salvador. Taiwan has been a de facto sovereign nation since the end of a civil war in 1949, but China still views the island as its territory and has vowed to bring it under central control. China suspects Tsai of pushing for formal independence for Taiwan, which was established by the defeated nationalists following the civil war 70 years ago. The government in Beijing considers the island a renegade province and has said it is prepared to use force to take back the island, if necessary.
Beijing considers the switch as a prize in its campaign to lure allies away from Taiwan, which it considers a wayward province with no right to state-to-state ties. Though only 16 countries now recognize Taiwan, it is a fact that it has evolved into one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies and economically a developed nation.
The Solomon Islands’ Democratic Coalition Government for Advancement voted 27-0, with six abstentions, to establish diplomatic ties with China. The decision was later approved by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. As soon as it transpired that the Solomon Islands decided to severe diplomatic recognition to China, Taiwan severed ties with the Pacific nation, with Tsai saying Solomon Islands’ decision as “extremely regrettable”. Taiwan lost no time in closing its embassy and recalling all technical and medical personnel stationed there. There were many on-going cooperative projects and these are destined to remain unfinished. Taipei also demanded that Honiara immediately recall its government personnel from Taiwan.
The obvious reason behind Solomon Islands’ decision to switch ties is because of Beijing using “dollar diplomacy” in the region. As elsewhere, China has continually used financial and political pressure over the past few years to suppress Taiwan’s international space and succeeded in doing so. Over the decades, dozens of countries, including the US and most western nations, have switched recognition to Beijing, leaving just a handful of countries loyal to Taiwan, largely in Latin America and the Pacific.
Earlier the Solomon Islands had instituted a cross-party taskforce to investigate the benefits to the country of switching ties. The report advised that the government switch ties to China and invite it to establish a diplomatic mission in the capital, Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal.
The taskforce recommended that the Solomon Islands stand to benefit a lot if it switches and normalize diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The diplomatic switch reduces the number of countries that recognize Taiwan to 16, while 170 countries are aligned with the PRC. Of the 16 remaining diplomatic allies that self-ruled Taiwan has now, many are small, less-developed nations in Central America and the Pacific, including Belize and Nauru.
The south Pacific has been a diplomatic stronghold for Taiwan. It has formal ties with six island nations made up more than a third of its total alliances. In recent years, Beijing has been trying to break these relationships and expand its influence in the region. The Solomon Islands was by far the largest remaining Pacific ally for Taiwan. Its population is larger than all of Taiwan’s remaining allies in the region – Palau, Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati and Marshall Islands – combined.
The Solomon Islands had diplomatic relations with Taiwan for 36 years and benefited from economic largesse provide by Taiwan. Taiwan is now concerned that Solomon Islands diplomatic switch will lead to a domino effort across its remaining Pacific allies. The immediate decision to terminate ties with Taiwan would mean many development programs with Taiwan’s financial support could be halted.
The decision shall have also serious human impacts as many jobs would be lost and students studying in Taiwan would have to leave immediately. Currently, there are about 125 Solomon students studying in Taiwan, with more than 60 recipients of Taiwan scholarships. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said it will deal with these students in accordance with precedents under similar circumstances. These students would have to return to their home country immediately. It remains to be seen if China would address to such immediate negative fallouts of the diplomatic switch.
Viewed from a larger perspective, Taiwan’s increasing isolation poses new challenge to Washington’s regional diplomacy in the Pacific. For the US, the Solomon’s decision is a setback in its efforts to prevent China from continuing to make diplomatic inroads among island nations in the Pacific, a region of increasing geostrategic competition between Washington and Beijing. Five of the 16 nations that still diplomatic ties with Taiwan are in the region.
Beijing has always considered Taiwan as a break-way province that must be integrated into the mainland China and has threatened to do so by force, if necessary. Isolating Taiwan from the world has remained therefore Beijing’s long-term strategy. Beijing has therefore intensified its efforts to peel off Taiwan’s remaining allies, some of which have found Beijing’s economic doles too much to resist. Beijing is unconcerned of Taiwan’s accusation that Beijing bribed Solomon politicians to abandon Taipei in the run-up to the 70th anniversary on October 1 of the founding of the PRC under the Communist Party. For Beijing, this is a major coup.
Not surprisingly, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement which said:
“The government of China has once again resorted to “dollar diplomacy” and false promises of large amounts of foreign assistance to buy off a small number of politicians, so as to ensure that the government of Solomon Islands adopted a resolution to terminate relations with Taiwan before China’s National Day”.
The statement further said, “Beijing’s purpose is to diminish Taiwan’s international presence, hurt the Taiwanese people, and gradually suppress and eliminate Taiwan’s sovereignty.”
It may be recalled that though Washington broke official ties with Taipei in 1979 and established diplomatic ties with Beijing as a Cold War counterweight against the Soviet Union, Taiwan continued to remain as an important, though unofficial, US ally in East Asia.
In fact, US-Taiwan ties have grown significantly stronger since Tsai’s coming to power in 2016 and Donald Trump taking over the American Presidency in early 2017. The Taiwan Relations Act remains a significant element in the US-Taiwan bilateral ties. Based on this agreement, the US authorized two major potential arms sales to Taiwan in recent months.
Both Tsai and Trump face re-elections next year. Taiwan shall have both presidential and legislative elections in January 2020. Taiwan suspects that Beijing must be trying to disrupt these elections by extending tacit support to Tsai’s opponents who are pro-China. Tsai’s challenger, Han Kuo-yu, the China-friendly mayor of the city of Kaohsiung in Taiwan’s south, has attacked her over deteriorating cross-strait relations. Beijing has ignored Tsai’s calls for dialogue since she became president because of her independent policy stance.
Despite losing the Solomon Islands, Taiwan is not disheartened. Despite viewing the Solomon Islands’ decision as a letdown and recognizing that the diplomatic arena is challenging, Taiwan is hopeful that it still has many friends around the world willing to stand with it and that it is not alone. Tsai has rejected Xi Jinping’s offer that Beijing would administer Taiwan under the “one country, two systems” model that China uses to presides over Hong Kong. Taiwan is seized of the matter that for months, Hong Kong has been roiled by protests against its eroding semi-autonomy under the system.
The protests in Hong Kong pose the biggest challenge for Communist Party rulers in Beijing since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012. Tsai is vehemently opposed and protests that Beijing is trying to damage the morale of the Taiwanese people and coercing to accept ‘one country, two systems’ principle. Tsai is confident that the 23 million people of the island nation would reject such a Chinese design.
Beijing hailed the decision of the Solomon Islands as a “historical opportunity”. Sogavare, who governs through a coalition after an April election, had been under intense pressure from parliamentary colleagues who saw little benefit in staying with the shrinking band of nations that officially recognise Taipei.
Sogavare was attracted by the prospect China providing significant infrastructure funding to the impoverished nation, where less than 50 per cent of the population has access to electricity. He felt that switching to China would give the Solomons greater leverage over traditional regional powers, such as Fiji, which shrugged off sanctions imposed by Australia and New Zealand following a 2006 military coup by boosting relations with China.
Beijing stepped up its campaign to diplomatically isolate Taiwan after Tsai’s 2016 landslide election because she hails from a party that refuses to recognise the idea that the island is part of “one China”. It has also ramped up military drills and squeezed the island economically. The small African nation of Sao Tome and Principe was the first to fall, switching recognition to Beijing in late 2016, followed by Burkina Faso and then three Latin American nations: Panama, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
Tsai is seeking re-election in January 2020. The main issue in the polls is likely to be the kind of relations Taiwan should have with China. For Tsai, the election is a “fight for freedom and democracy”. She has taken the stand that she is the one who can defend Taiwan from an increasingly assertive Beijing. Her main challenger Han Kuo-yu, from the opposition Kuomintang party, favours rebooting ties with Beijing.
Beijing seems to have a deep pocket in wooing as many diplomatic allies of Taiwan to its fold as possible, with the ultimate goal of leaving Taiwan with no friend. In doing so, it is engaged in checkbook diplomacy and has pledged at least $8.6 billion to win over Taiwan’s allies.
A chain of countries since 2016 have abandoned Taiwan “to accept millions in development aid from China, underscoring an uptick in Beijing’s unabashed use of checkbook diplomacy”. Beijing is angered that Tsai has rejected the idea that both sides belong under a single flag, a claim that Beijing has been making since the 1940s. Tsai’s rejection has encouraged Beijing to encourage switching by Taiwan’s allies since she took office in 2016.
Though Taiwan is already a developed nation, the self-ruled Taiwan finds it hard to compete. It lacks China’s budget and quick process of approving aid and making the recipient countries fall into “debt trap”. “The relative dearth of allies gives Taiwan a weak voice in the United Nations and other international agencies compared with China, which uses some of those organizations to squelch Taiwan’s foreign diplomacy.”
Beijing is convinced that offer of aid and development assistance to small poorer nations shall make them difficult to reject. Fabrizio Bozzato, a fellow at Taiwan Strategy Research Association, a Taipei-based organization that researches relations among Taipei, Washington and Beijing remarks: “China will use the prospect of aid allocation or soft loans to persuade a country that gives diplomatic allegiance to Taipei to switch to Beijing.” The Chinese government budget exceeded $3.3 trillion in 2018, compared with Taiwan’s budget of about $70 billion. China lacks a legislative process, unlike democratic Taiwan, that could stop or modify aid packages.
A recent news report in Los Angeles Times lists the pledges that China has made to the countries that have abandoned Taiwan since 2016.
Sao Tome and Principe: China promised a $600-million deep-water harbor to the oil-reliant island nation after the two sides set up relations in December 2016, the Foreign Ministry in Taipei says. The country of just 216,000 people lacks a harbor deep enough for oil tankers. The African nation had been planning the harbor since 2008, but Taiwan’s president at the time rejected its request for aid, according to research lab AidData at the College of William & Mary.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela visited the Panama Canal in December 2018.
Panama: Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry lacks data on aid offered by China to Panama since the Central American country switched recognition in June 2017. In December last year, China and Panama signed 19 agreements, including one giving Panama an undisclosed amount of “non-reimbursable aid” for “various projects,” the investment consultancy Caribbean Council says on its website. Panama’s switch handed Tsai her biggest foreign relations setback because of the Panama Canal’s strategic importance to shipping.
Dominican Republic: China said it would give this Caribbean island country investments amounting to $3 billion, according to Foreign Ministry data in Taipei. A Chinese state-run bank will offer a $600-million loan to upgrade the Dominican Republic’s power distribution, the Caribbean Council says, while other agreements will extend Chinese aid to infrastructure construction, farming and trade. The Dominican Republic severed ties with Taiwan in May 2018.
Burkina Faso: This landlocked West African country was promised transport infrastructure worth $1 billion, the ministry in Taipei says. “Bottlenecks” in transportation “undermine any competitive advantages Burkina Faso may have,” but the country lacks money to do much about it, the global development organization IFC says in a July 2019 study. Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world with 40% of people in extreme poverty, established formal relations with China in May 2018, days after splitting from Taiwan.
El Salvador: China intends to give El Salvador $4 billion to help develop the Port of La Union, Taiwanese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said. El Salvador finished reconstruction of the seaport in 2012, but the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador said in 2018 the country was looking for a concessionaire to run it. China made “a promise to El Salvador to provide billions to develop the Port of La Union, but nothing is happening,” Ou said. El Salvador cut ties with Taiwan in August 2018, spurring the United States to warn other Central American countries, which are traditional U.S. allies as well, against any further switches to China.
Solomon Islands: Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said at a news conference Monday that China had offered money to the Solomon Islands, but the ministry does not have a figure. The Solomons had been on Taiwan’s roster of allies since 1983. Day before the switch, Taiwan’s Up Media news site reported that China was offering the Solomon Islands $500 million in financial assistance in exchange for the latter switching diplomatic recognition to Beijing, a confirmation that “dollar diplomacy” is Beijing open strategy to isolate Taiwan from its friends. China’s spokeswoman Hua Chunying observed: “We stand ready to work with the Solomon Islands to open new broad prospects for our bilateral relations”.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare had said China was seen as more likely to provide significant infrastructure funding to the impoverished nation, where less than 50 percent of the population has access to electricity. He also argued switching to China would give the Solomons greater leverage over traditional regional powers, citing Fiji, which shrugged off sanctions imposed by Australia and New Zealand following a 2006 military coup by boosting relations with China.
Taiwan’s warning to the Solomon Islands that switching diplomatic ties to China could put the country at risk of falling into a debt trap made little effect on the Pacific nation. Taiwan’s spokeswoman Joanne Ou had warned that “China’s expansion in the Pacific has made many countries to fall into the trap of debt”. The Solomon Islands ignored that the “flashy infrastructure that China promised has caused serious damage to the local ecosystem and infringed their sovereignty”.
Though Tsai is undeterred and has announced that she would never buckle under China’s pressure, it is to be seen how she is going to face the forthcoming elections early in 2020 and make efforts to retain the remaining diplomatic allies. Though the US is unlikely to abandon Taiwan because of its compelling geostrategic considerations and continue to help strengthen Taiwan’s military capability by providing modern arms and equipment to deter the perceived Chinese threat, a belligerent China if it decides to use force, the geopolitical dynamics in the region would undergo dramatic change. That possibility best is avoided and maintaining the present status quo could be the preferable option.