Taiwan’s president urged the Solomon Islands not to switch diplomatic allegiance to China Monday, as the Pacific nation deliberates whether to recognise the far more economically powerful Beijing instead.
The Solomons are among only 17 countries that maintain official ties with Taiwan, but Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has vowed to review the relationship.
Beijing has poached five diplomatic allies from Taipei since the 2016 election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen – part of a wider campaign to isolate the island because her party refuses to accept that Taiwan is part of “one China.”
Taiwan is desperate to stave off losing another diplomatic ally.
Last week the government warned that Chinese “flashy and false promises” of building infrastructure had pushed other Pacific nations into “debt traps.”
On Monday Tsai told the visiting Solomons Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele that Taiwan is a responsible partner in the international community.
She called for the Solomons’ “continuous support” and said Taiwan would work with the country to “further enhance bilateral relations.”
Manele later told a press conference that Solomons “appreciates the friendly, rich and progressive relations” with Taiwan, saying the review is part of a broader assessment of its “global posture.”
“Like in any democracy there is no single opinion on this … for us it’s basically trying to look at what’s in the best interest of our foreign policy going forward,” added Collin Beck, permanent secretary at the Solomons’ foreign and external trade ministry.
“At the moment it’s business as usual for us,” he said.
Less than half the Solomons population has access to electricity and it is heavily reliant on foreign aid.
The debate offers a chance to weigh up promises of support from Taipei and Beijing, as lawmakers and others in the Solomons push for a switch to China, the world’s second-biggest economy.
Taiwan has been run as a de facto independent nation for the last seven decades but Beijing sees as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.
The Solomons’ parliamentary foreign relations committee is accepting submissions on the Taiwan-China issue until the end of this month and has an October 31 deadline to report to the legislature.
Its foreign affairs department has said no decision had been made and the issue would not be finalised until the cabinet had reviewed a task force report.
Nations such as Australia and the United States fear Beijing’s interest is fuelled by a long-term goal to establish a military base in the islands, offering control of vast swathes of ocean.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper last month accused China of destabilising the region using such tactics, citing “predatory economics and debt-for-sovereignty deals.”
However, China’s ambassador to Samoa Chao Xiaoliang has labelled critics “ignorant” and “prejudiced.”
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