Two competing dragons in the Pacific

Dear Editor,
THE Taiwanese President, H.E. Tsai Ing-wen,received a warm red carpet welcome on her official visit to Honiara the capital of the Solomon Islands this week.
Quoting from an official press statement from the Solomon Islands Government, President Tsai began her official engagements in Honiara meeting with the Governor General, Sir Frank Kabui at Government House, the Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare at the Prime Minister’s Office and with the the speaker of the National Parliament, Ajilon Nasiu, before addressing Parliament.

“At a State Luncheon in honour of the ROC President, Sir Frank said the people of Solomon Islands have heard much about Taiwan.

“We are happy to see you in Honiara and for others in the country knowing that you have come to visit us is knowledge enough that you show interest in us and our country,” Sir Frank said.

“Speaking of Taiwan’s ongoing support towards Solomon Islands on both the bilateral and multilateral fronts, Sir Frank said the people of Solomon Islands are most grateful for these assistance programs which have been expressed in different ways and in various forums at different times over the years.

“Our two countries can now safely claim to be democracies in which human rights, the rule of law, peace, security, equality of opportunity are values of human decency and wholesomeness in society. Both our countries do subscribe to these values dearly,” Sir Frank said.

“Similarly, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare conveyed appreciation towards the Government of Taiwan for its continuous support towards the development of Solomon Islands and the warm mutual relations both countries maintain to enjoy over 34 years.

“Prime Minister Sogavare reaffirmed Solomon Islands support for Taiwan and also indicated the significance and room for greater cooperation especially in the area of trade.

“At the multilateral front, Prime Minister Sogavare said the world cannot overlook the willingness and readiness of the 23 million people Taiwan in contributing to a range of international issues.

“He said Solomon Islands remains adamant in giving that chance to Taiwan, and remains committed towards supporting Taiwan’s bid for membership in key International Organizations such as the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the United Nations Framework for Climate Change.

“The future of Solomon Islands and the Republic of China (Taiwan) relations is filled with promising prospects, and I am optimistic that the fruits of this relationship will grow to greater heights,”PM Sogavare said.

“In Parliament, Speaker Ajilon Nasiu said Taiwan is indeed a true friend of Solomon Islands by contributing towards infrastructure projects that supports the foundation of democracy in the country.”
The timing of President Tsai In-wen’s visit to Honiara coincided with a new round of ‘political musical chairs’ being played out and the virtual collapse of the DCCG, albeit some late interventions brought several new Ministers into the government’s camp.   A motion of No Confidence in the Prime Minister has been set down for Monday 6 November and time will tell whether or not the government survives.
Prime Minister Sogavare has claimed that the exit from his Cabinet was because the defecting MPs opposed the raft of anti-corruption Bills that have been reintroduced into Parliament after re-strengthening and following a public outcry following their earlier withdrawal from the National Parliament.
For several years already there has been local rumour of a change of political support for the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and several Solomon Islands officials have made regular visits to China reporting back favourably on what the PRC might offer to the Solomon Islands in exchange for diplomatic recognition.
So far the rumours have been just that and the visit of President Tsai appears to have underscored the Solomon Islands desirability of maintaining its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan.
Instability and opposition in the Solomon Islands government ranks at the time of the official visit, however, must have caused some analysts in the ROC’s ranks to ponder the future relationship despite the favourable overtures.
While the Taiwanese President and her delegation were being welcomed in Honiara, in neighbouring Vanuatu, the Prime Minister, Charlot Salwai, was hosting Liu Guan,the PRC’s Ambassador to Vanuatu.
PM Salwai said, during a press briefing with Ambassador Guan, that he knew the Taiwanese President was then visiting the Solomon Islands but his government would continue to support China (PRC).
During the press conference, reported by Radio New Zealand International (RNZI) Prime Minister Salwai was reported to have also said (quote)
“Through its aid programme, China has funded the construction of facilities for the games as well as roads on the islands of Tanna and Malekula.”
He reiterated the stance (for Vanuatus support of China) yesterday during the signing of a contract for the maintenance of Vanuatu’s National Convention Centre.
Under the deal China will provide eight officials to train Ni-Vanuatu locals how to maintain the centre.”
Ambassador Liu Guan in a reply said, The centre’s maintenance was important because it will enable Vanuatu to host international events.”
Clearly, China’s increasing presence in the Pacific is adding to the rivalry with Taiwan and this historic battle is unlikely to decrease since its historical beginnings go back many years and came to a head in 1971 when China replaced Taiwan as‘China’ representative for the United Nations.  Since that time Taiwan has been vying for diplomatic recognition in the international community this being a direct consequence of the One China policy whereby each of the two dragons refuse to recognise each other.
As a result, both China and Taiwan have been competing in‘chequebook diplomacy in the Pacific, offering generous aid contributions in an attempt to alienate and eclipse the other.
Traditional aid to several smaller Pacific countries from regional partners and UN affiliated organizations and banks,including the Solomon Islands, comes with pre-conditions, but Chinese aid, whether from Taiwan or from the PRC, is free from conditions and is appealing but such gifts lack the essential requirements of good governance and the implementation of strict audits, an example in the Solomon Islands of the millions of dollars given to MPs by Taiwan for constitutional development projects which, according to the recent report of Transparency Solomon Islands (TSI), very little is seen in the various constituencies on development after money has been given to the MPs.
I am not alone in thinking that the increasing China-Taiwan diplomatic rivalry and the ramifications on domestic aid, given the slowness in economic growth, employment prospects and in a country now beset by the rampant effects of climate change, will lead, ultimately, to the Solomon Islands having to evaluate the impact of PRC aid.
The latest political maneuvering, corruption, weak institutions and a decline in good governance in the Solomon Islands will not have gone unnoticed in China and will have contributed towards an ever-growing opportunity for the PRC to offer the China card to pour money, development and infrastructure support to the struggling Solomon Islands in order to oust Taiwan and build up its own voting bloc in the region.
Yours sincerely
Frank Short

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