Taiwan tries to stop Solomon Islands’ diplomatic switch to Beijing

Taiwan's deputy foreign minister Hsu Szu-chien is reportedly in the Solomon Islands in bid to save diplomatic ties between Taipei and Honiara. Photo: EPA-EFE. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

TAIPEI, Sep 16, 2019, SCMP. Taiwan’s deputy foreign minister Szu-Chien Hsu led a delegation to the Solomon Islands on Monday, less than a week before its largest ally in the Pacific is due to decide whether to switch diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing – a move that would leave Taiwan with only 16 allied nations, reported the South China Morning Post.

Local media reported that Hsu would spend a few days in Honiara meeting with officials about the relationship between Taiwan and the Solomon Islands. Taiwan’s embassy in Honiara declined to comment when reached by phone.

Alex Akwai, press secretary to Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, said by phone on Monday that he understood Hsu had landed in the country, but was unable to share further details, including whether he would meet with Sogavare.

Akwai said he was also unable to confirm whether the government would formally make the diplomatic switch or when, adding: “Stay tuned.”

The Solomon Islands is expected to make an official decision on the relationship by Saturday, September 21, following the conclusion by a government-appointed parliamentary task force that the Pacific nation “stands to benefit a lot” in making the switch to Beijing.

It has also emerged that Sogovare described Taiwan as “completely useless to us” in a podcast published last week.

Beijing has been ramping up its campaign to isolate Taiwan in the past three years, as cross-strait relations have deteriorated since Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen took office. She will be hoping for re-election in January 2020. Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan, and has not ruled out the use of force to bring the self-governing island under its rule.

Five countries have so far dropped diplomatic ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing during Tsai’s presidency, including El Salvador, Burkina Faso, Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.

Hsu’s visit follows a meeting between Tsai and Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele in Taiwan, where she emphasised the two sides’ cooperation in areas such as agriculture, health care, and education, as well as their shared democratic values.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry warned last Friday that a diplomatic switch could land the Solomon Islands in China’s “debt trap.”

The US ambassador to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu told Taiwan’s Central News Agency that the US government hoped the Solomon Islands would maintain the status quo, saying: “Taiwan has been an exceptional partner to the Solomon Islands.”

Sogavare is expected to meet with US Vice-President Mike Pence at the United Nations General Assembly later this month.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in early September that Beijing “stands ready to develop friendly and cooperative relations” with countries around the world, when asked about the Solomon Islands’ decision.

But Peter Kenilorea Jnr, chair of the Solomon Islands parliament’s foreign relations committee, said in a statement on Sunday that he was “deeply concerned” that the decision was being rushed through so that the Pacific nation could participate in China’s 70th anniversary celebrations of its founding on October 1.

Kenilorea also warned about getting caught up in the geopolitics between the US and China. “This is an ominous sign of things to come in a relationship I have constantly stated that we as a nation, with our weak governance structures, struggling institutions, and structural handicaps, are not ready for a switch now,” he said. “To cut an existing tie with a partner is a serious matter.”

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