Solomon Islands’ Potential Diplomatic Break With Taiwan Draws US Concerns

By Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
September 15, 2019 Updated: September 15, 2019

TAIPEI, Taiwan—U.S. alliances in the Pacific could suffer a blow if the Solomon Islands were to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing, U.S. experts and officials warned, after a Solomons government report recommended that it make the change.

The Solomon Islands, a South Pacific island nation located near Papua New Guinea and Australia, has been reviewing its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan since the current prime minister Manasseh Sogavare took office in April.

The island is among Taiwan’s list of 17 international diplomatic allies, since 1983. Taiwan has lost five allies to China since 2016—El Salvador, Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and São Tomé and Príncipe.

Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory despite the fact that the island is a full-fledged democracy with its own elected officials, military, and currency.

The Taiwanese government has accused Beijing of deploying “dollar diplomacy”: providing investments and loans to Taiwan’s allies so that they drop their recognition of Taiwan in favor in favor of the Chinese regime.

Soon after taking office, Sogavare set up a cross-party parliamentary task force to evaluate the country’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan. According to a Sept. 1 Reuters report, eight Solomon Islands ministers and the prime minister’s private secretary visited Beijing in August. Unnamed officials from the task force visited other South Pacific nations that are allied with China soon afterward.

The U.S. administration has been on alert about Beijing’s influence in the region as the latter has bolstered its geopolitical interests there, seeking to build military bases.

Beijing or Taiwan?

On Sept. 13, Sogavare held a meeting with local lawmakers to discuss the task force report. According to a copy obtained by Taiwan’s government-run Central News Agency (CNA), the report recommended that the Solomon Islands establish diplomatic ties with Beijing by mid-September, finding that the nation would stand “to benefit a lot if it switches and normalizes diplomatic relations” with the Chinese regime.

The report also called on the island nation to end diplomatic ties with Taiwan to adhere to Beijing’s “one China” principle, which holds that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China.

There were unconfirmed Taiwanese media reports that Beijing promised to offer the Solomon Islands $500 million in aid once the island decides to switch diplomatic recognition.

Alex Akwai, Sogavare’s press secretary, spoke to the press after the Sept. 13 meeting, saying that they did not come to a conclusion and discussion will continue on Sept. 17, according to CNA.

Akwai also said that the government cabinet would like to make a final decision before the prime minister departs for New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21.

According to CNA sources, pro-Beijing Solomon lawmakers in the island nation’s legislature are hoping that Sogavare will make the diplomatic switch to Beijing before he heads to New York—in order to avoid any U.S. attempt to influence the country’s decision.

Meanwhile, Taiwanese Ambassador to the Solomon Islands Oliver Liao said that after the task force report, Taiwan’s embassy mobilized pro-Taiwan lawmakers in the country’s parliament to voice support for Taipei.

US Concerns

Though formal diplomatic relations between Taiwan and Washington were severed after the latter switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979, Taiwan remains a key U.S. ally in the Indo-Pacific region. Washington is also the chief supplier of arms for Taiwan’s self-defense, as Beijing has continually threatened to use military force to unite the island with the mainland.

A June 2019 Pentagon report named Taiwan as one of the “natural partners of the United States” in defending the region’s stability.

The United States has since raised concerns about the Solomon Islands’ potential diplomatic switch.

CNA, citing an unnamed source in Washington, said that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is expected to meet Sogavare at the United Nations to tell the prime minister that a good relationship between Taiwan and the Solomons would have the strong support of the U.S. government.

As of press time, the vice president’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Catherine Ebert-Gray, U.S ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, met with Sogavare on  Sept. 10 to discuss U.S. aid to the Solomons. She recounted to CNA in a recent interview that she conveyed to Sogavare that Taiwan was an “exceptional partner” to the Solomon Islands.

She also told the prime minister about potential “challenges” should the island decide to recognize Beijing, according to CNA.

The U.S. ambassador also said that the two discussed Sogavare’s meeting with U.S. officials at the U.N., including Pence.

On Sept. 11, Pentagon official David Helvey also expressed concerns about the potential diplomatic switch, at a forum held by Washington-based think tank Global Taiwan Institute.

Helvey, who is principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said it was important for Taiwan to maintain its diplomatic partners so that the island would not be isolated internationally and would be able to safeguard stability in the region.

Michael Green, senior adviser at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said  that a switch would hurt the interests of Australia, New Zealand, and the United States because Beijing was building up its military and geological interests in the South Pacific, according to CNA.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission had warned of the danger of a Chinese military base in the Pacific Islands, in a June 2018 report. A few months prior in April, news reports emerged that there were discussions between Vanuatu and the Chinese regime about potentially building a Chinese military base on the island—which were denied by both countries.

“A potential Chinese military base or facility in the Pacific Islands could have implications for U.S. military presence and training in the Indo-Pacific and could pose obstacles to U.S. strategic access in the Pacific Islands,”  the report stated.

It added: “Such a development could expand China’s monitoring and surveillance capabilities in the region, helping Beijing mitigate U.S. military presence in the region.”

Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.