China has won big out of a diplomatic spat between itself and Taiwan this week, as the country has convinced both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati to sever long-standing ties with Taipei — bringing the total number of countries switching to Beijing to seven since 2016.
China gains the Solomon Islands and Kiribati as allies, ‘compressing’ Taiwan’s global recognition
Beijing considers Taiwan a rogue breakaway province — and claims it in its entirety — while the Government of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen advocates for the island’s independence.
The South Pacific has been a traditional diplomatic stronghold for Taiwan, but following its most recent losses, Taipei now only has Palau, Nauru, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands as allies.
Globally, this leaves Taiwan with total of 15 states that recognise the Asian territory’s independence, which includes the Vatican, and a number of small states in the Pacific, Caribbean, and Latin America.
On Saturday, the Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, signed an agreement with Solomon Islands’ Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele to officially established diplomatic ties at a government guest house in Beijing.
“Right now there are only very few countries that have not established diplomatic relations with China,” Mr Wang told reporters after the signing as Mr Manele stood by his side.
“We believe that in those countries there will be more and more people with vision who will step forward and their voice for justice and in line with the trend of history will be heard.”
Solomon Islands and Kiribati’s respective decisions to break with Taipei have dealt fresh blows to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who is seeking re-election in January.
Since Ms Tsai’s election, China has stepped up pressure on Taiwan by flying regular bomber patrols around the island.
Repeatedly, Taiwan has accused Beijing of offering easy cash, loans and goods in return for recognition — a claim the Chinese Government denies — but this week China said both Kiribati and the Solomon Islands would have “unprecedented development opportunities” if they sided with them.
In July, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told the Australian National University’s Little Red Podcast that Taiwan was “completely useless to us” economically and politically.
He went on to say that Beijing could help the island nation “establish a military force”.
Winning over Solomon Islands and Kiribati also strengthens China’s influence in the Pacific, where Washington and Canberra have grown increasingly worried about Beijing’s increasing clout.
Australia’s former High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands, James Batley, told ABC’s The World program that Honiara’s decision was unsurprising and grounded in “access to resources”.
“Politics in Solomon Islands is essentially about access to resources, and the control of resources, and I think that’s ultimately what has motivated this decision,” he said.
The Pacific island nation of Kiribati acted in its best national interest when it severed ties with Taiwan and re-established diplomatic relations with China, the office of Kiribati’s President said on Saturday.
The office of Kiribati’s President Taneti Maamau said in a statement that the re-establishment of diplomatic relations came “following a long internal review and assessment of our international relations in accordance with the best national interest for our country and people.”
Taiwan said on Friday that China lured Kiribati with economic investment.
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Beijing was trying to “suppress and reduce Taiwan’s international presence”.
Pacific analyst Tess Newtown-Cain, an adjunct associate professor at Griffith University’s Asia Institute, concurred with Mr Wu’s sentiment, and told The World that Beijing’s efforts were “very much about compressing the small amount of international space that Taiwan already exercises”.
“Obviously it’s very significant in light of the upcoming elections in Taiwan in January,” she added.
Both Kiribati, with a population of around 110,000, and the Solomon Islands lie in strategic waters that have been dominated by the United States and its allies following the Second World War.
Aid requested by Kiribati from Beijing includes loans and a Boeing 737 aircraft, said a senior official in Taiwan with direct knowledge of the matter who sought anonymity.