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Shortly after being elected to parliament two years ago, Solomon Islands’ opposition politician Peter Kenilorea Jr claims he received a highly irregular proposition.

People began approaching him asking him to make “some positive comments about China in exchange for a piece of land”, he said, declining to identify the interlocutors.

Kenilorea alleges the reason for the offers soon became clear. After the elections in 2019, the Solomons’ four-time prime minister Manasseh Sogavare switched the country’s diplomatic recognition of Taiwan to China, cutting ties with the island after 36 years.

The Solomons are just one of the tiny but strategically important nations of the Pacific that are caught up in a growing geopolitical competition over whether to maintain diplomatic ties with Beijing or Taiwan.

While the same contest is playing out in other regions — most recently, Nicaragua signalled last week that it would recognise China — the issue in the Pacific is mingling with internecine domestic conflicts from the Solomons to Samoa to fuel tensions and, in some cases, violence.

In the Solomons, Australia and neighbouring countries have sent troops to help restore order after three people were killed in rioting and arson attacks last month. The unrest followed protests led by Daniel Suidani, premier of the Solomons’ most populous island, Malaita, against the government’s recognition of China but which analysts said were rooted in ethnic disputes and economic discontent.

On Thursday, the complete shift in the country’s strategic orientation was made plain. As Canberra confirmed the bulk of its contingent of peacekeeping forces in the country were to be withdrawn, China said it would send replacements.

Zhao Lijian, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, said an “ad hoc” police advisory group and tactical equipment were on their way to the country.

“They will arrive soon to play a constructive role in strengthening local police capability,” he said.

A total of 10 Pacific nations recognise China and only four Taiwan, which Beijing argues is a part of its territory and not a sovereign nation and therefore should not receive diplomatic recognition. Taipei and Beijing have both offered rewards, such as generous aid increases, to countries that switch allegiance.

Underlying the tensions is the escalating rivalry between China and the US, which supports Taiwan. Xi Jinping has stepped up China’s interest in the South Pacific, whose countries collectively control 28 per cent of global sovereign ocean territory, including important trading lanes. Many of the islands were battlefields in the second world war.

“[The] larger pattern of strategic rivalry between America and China [is] over which of them will be the primary power in East Asia and the western Pacific in the decades ahead, so the stakes are very high,” said Hugh White, emeritus professor of strategic studies at Australian National University.

China has increased aid, with grants peaking at $145m in 2018, according to the Lowy Institute, an Australia-based think-tank. The US fears Beijing might gain access to deepwater ports or other infrastructure in the region with potential military utility.

“If the People’s Liberation Army Navy had a port that it could rely on in the region, that would allow it to deny the peaceful access of the US naval fleet from the west coast of the United States to the east coast of Australia,” said a senior Australian intelligence official.

The tiny nation of Kiribati, which also switched ties from Taiwan to China in 2019, this year announced Beijing-backed plans to upgrade one of its airstrips for civilian use.

Farther south, in Samoa, prime minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa ended the 22-year rule of her predecessor Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi this year after her party campaigned against the construction of two Chinese-backed ports in the country.

Her supporters argued the ports were unnecessary and would saddle the country with more debt. Under Tuilaepa, this grew to half of Samoa’s gross domestic product, with China the single biggest creditor.

“The level of indebtedness is a concern and perhaps not just to China but to [any] one source,” Fiame said in an interview with the Financial Times.

But as with most Pacific islands, the local politics underlying Fiame’s victory were more complicated than the campaign against Chinese debt suggested.

Fiame served as deputy prime minister before defecting to the opposition. Belonging to one of the nation’s four highest chiefly families — in effect, royalty — she was probably the only person capable of unseating the powerful prime minister and his party, analysts said.

Her campaign was also funded by remittances from overseas Samoans, known to be more suspicious of Chinese aid to their homeland.

While opposition to China has dominated the headlines in the Solomons, people from Malaita and Guadalcanal, the largest island by area and second by population, have historically engaged in ethnic conflicts stoked by the lack of opportunity for young people. Protesters, angry that companies from mainland China were entering sectors such as logging and mining, have often targeted ethnic Chinese shopkeepers.

According to one western diplomat, Solomons prime minister Sogavare was forced to drop recognition of Taiwan to ensure the loyalty of some pro-China Guadalcanal parliamentarians and secure a majority in parliament over a Malaitan-led group.

“[The] price for their support was understood to be that Sogavare switched recognition from Taiwan to China,” the diplomat said.

The MPs’ motives for supporting China were less clear, but recognition could unlock Chinese investment, the diplomat said. Unsustainable and illegal logging accounts for almost two-thirds of the country’s exports, most of which ends up in mainland China, according to environmental group Global Witness.

Kenilorea, who is the son of the Solomons’ first prime minister and the chairman of parliament’s foreign relations committee, said the switch in recognition was announced as official policy before the body had had a chance to finished its consultations.

A report on the issue from a task force especially appointed by the prime minister and obtained by the FT, included a recommendation that any switch “must” happen before October 1, 2019 — the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

Sogavare denied accusations of corrupt payments and fended off a parliamentary no-confidence motion last week, decrying what he said was “an attempted illegal coup instigated by agents of Taiwan”. Malaita responded by announcing a poll on self-determination, but analysts doubted it would succeed at the ballot box.

Despite the setbacks, Taipei and Washington retain some support in the Pacific. This year, the Federated States of Micronesia, which recognises China, agreed to host a US military base on its territory. In addition, more than six Pacific territories, including American Samoa and New Caledonia, have defence or political ties with the US or France.

But in the long term, Washington will struggle to overcome growing Chinese influence in the region, analysts said.
 
“China has a lot to offer the Pacific Islands economically, both as a market and a source of aid, and this gives China opportunities for influence,” said White of ANU.

Source: This post first appeared on Duk News

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