Losing Solomon Islands and Kiribati Could Work to Taiwan's Advantage

Losing Solomon Islands and Kiribati Could Work to Taiwan's Advantage
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The Solomon Islands and Kiribati have both switched allegiance from Taiwan to China, but is it really a loss for Taiwan?

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The Solomon Islands’s decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China has received widespread domestic and international media coverage this week. News of Kiribati's decision to follow suit has just broken at the time of writing, but it is likely to follow the same pattern.

The media coverage on the severance of ties has been markedly different from previous diplomatic switches. Most reactions suggest that, while the loss of an ally is never good news, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pressures Taiwan in a foul manner, it can play out to Taiwan’s advantage.

Controversy Behind the Solomon Islands General Election

In April of this year, the Solomon Islands held a general election, where there were several reports of irregularities at the polling stations, including people omitted from the voting register and even votes for sale.

Just ahead of the polls, a court injunction demanded to postpone the election, but Governor-General Sir Frank Kabui chose to ignore the court ruling and proceeded.

The upshot was the election of the current Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare — for the fourth time. It is worth noting that two of his previous three terms of office ended prematurely after he lost a no-confidence vote.

Sogavare was always seen as a pro-Beijing candidate and his administration quickly began what it described as a foreign policy review, an attempt to court Beijing and Taipei to see which one was willing to throw more money their way.

Solomon Islands delegations were dispatched to both China and Taiwan, with SI Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele visiting Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in Taipei as recently as September 9. His refusal to commit to ongoing relations with Taiwan then appeared to spell the beginning of the end.

Tsai’s Condemnation of China's Dollar Diplomacy

President Tsai has flatly refused to engage in a bidding war with China over diplomatic allies. Such an approach would be a fruitless exercise as China’s resources are far greater than Taiwan’s.

After the Solomon Islands cut off ties with Taiwan, Reuters reported the CCP had issued an executive order to secure the allegiance of the Solomon Islands “at any cost” as a move to distract Taiwan from the Hong Kong protests.

If President Tsai had tried to outbid the CPP in keeping the Solomon Islands’s allegiance, it would likely have hurt Tsai in the upcoming election more so than losing another diplomatic ally.

“I want to emphasize that Taiwan will not engage in dollar diplomacy with China in order to satisfy unreasonable demands,” Tsai said at a press conference, reiterating her stance against Beijing’s suppression.

27 out of 33 Solomon Islands MPs voted to switch allegiance to China, six abstained. None voted to stick with Taiwan.However, people of the Solomon Islands are far from happy with the government’s decision. Residents in the Malaita province, who has the largest population among the islands, have requested independence from the Solomon Islands government. Many Solomon Islanders have also posted on social media expressing their disappointment in the government.

China’s dollar diplomacy has been dubbed “debt diplomacy” as well. Small countries such as the Solomon Islands are easily lured by generous grants and cheap loans. But interest rates often quickly escalate to the point where the CCP is able to demand control over resources or even territory in lieu of repayment.

That is now a problem for the Solomon Islands and its people to deal with. Given Prime Minister Sogavare’s track record, the prospect of another no-confidence vote and a swift return to Taiwan is not impossible. Kiribati will likely face similar challenges.

The U.S. Takes a Strong Pro-Taiwan Position

The United States politicians have made no secret that they are furious and plan to punish the Solomon Islands. After the severance of diplomatic ties between Taiwan and the Solomon Islands, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence swiftly canceled a planned meeting with Sogavare.

“The decision by the Solomon Islands to change its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China has consequences,” a senior U.S. official told Reuters. “They’re hurting a historically strong relationship by doing this… It’s a setback, and it’s prioritizing short-term gain with China over long-term commitment with the U.S.”

Other senior U.S. politicians have urged their government to go even further. Senator Marco Rubio has stated that he will begin to explore ways to cut off U.S. ties with the Solomon Islands and potentially end all financial assistance to the island.

The U.S.’s strong stance is not just based on its support for Taiwan. Since the Solomon Islands holds an important strategic location in the South Pacific and has both deep-water ports and airstrips, the U.S. government will want to make sure the CCP military does not gain access to these. However, if the U.S. imposes punishments that are too severe, it might push the Solomon Islands further into Communist China’s clutches.

Striking this balance is, of course, an issue for the U.S. government to decide. But what is the likely impact for Taiwan?

U.S.-Taiwan Relations Strengthened

Senator Rubio and others are also keen to shore up U.S. support for Taiwan along with condemning the Solomon Islands decision. Rubio has called for Congress to pass the bipartisan TAIPEI Act to “push back against Beijing’s bullying.”

The TAIPEI Act, or the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative, proposed to supplement or reduce U.S. diplomatic presence to “provide incentives to countries considering or taking steps to alter or downgrade ties with Taiwan.”

If passed, the legislation would be the latest in a long line of pro-Taiwan legislation passed in the U.S., including the Taiwan Travel Act and the Taiwan Assurance Act.

Taiwan’s own foreign policy has shifted towards building stronger ties with established democratic governments rather than courting smaller nations for formal diplomatic recognition. The benefits of this approach are far greater and, ironically, the loss of the Solomon Islands could result in a big diplomatic win for Taiwan in the U.S.

The reality is that the Solomon Islands and Kiribati offered little as diplomatic allies, as they have no real influence on the international stage and bring little in terms of tourism or economic investment to Taiwan. The difference between having 17, 16, or 15 such diplomatic partners is negligible.

But stronger ties with the U.S. and other democratic nations would manifest these benefits that were absent in Taiwan's alliance with the pacific islands.

Today, the U.S. is standing closer than ever to Taiwan against the threat posed by the CCP. Meanwhile, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati are now at the mercy of Beijing. While Beijing may feel that it has scored more political points over the Tsai government, Taiwan has emerged from this week in a stronger position, despite the loss of longtime allies.

READ NEXT: Solomon Islands Officially Cuts Ties With Taiwan

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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