SCMP: The Solomon Islands switched recognition to Beijing – but its largest province still favours Taiwan

The sudden appearance last month of ex-militants on the streets of Malaita, the largest province in the Solomon Islands, sent an unmistakable message to the provincial authorities: drop your opposition to the central government’s switch in diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

The decision in September marked the loss of the most populous of Taipei’s few remaining allies in the Pacific, drawing praise from Beijing and a sharp rebuke from Washington.

Malaita Premier Daniel Suidani suggested the dozen or so former combatants – who took part in the ethnic violence that convulsed the archipelago from 1998-2003, prompting the intervention of Australian troops and police – had likely been sent on behalf of the Solomon Islands national government to intimidate the province into supporting the switch.

The controversy reflects the simmering tensions between central and provincial authorities that have been brought to the fore as the United States and China vie for influence in a patch of the Pacific both consider to be of major strategic significance.

Months after hailing the switch as being “on the right side of history”, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has struggled to overcome deep-rooted mistrust of Beijing in Malaita – which has a history of separatist sentiment, and which Washington has targeted for renewed engagement despite failing to convince Honiara to stick with Taipei.

“Many leaders in the provincial government do not appreciate getting involved with a powerful country like China, which has a different government system, which is not a democratic nation.”

Sogavare’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Since recognising Beijing, Chinese investment has poured into the island nation, including a bid by real estate company China Sam Enterprise Group to lease the entirety of Tulagi Island, which was rejected by the Solomons in October. The US, meanwhile, has expressed interest – along with allies Australia and New Zealand – in funding a deep water port project in Malaita.

“The strongest country in the world and the second strongest economy competing against each other for space – inevitably we are going to be drawn into that kind of dynamic,” he said. “It’s up to us to ensure that we manage that dynamic.”

Jian Zhang, associate professor at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said Beijing and Washington’s efforts to court the Solomons were already aggravating internal divisions.

“China’s influence will make an already complicated political situation more uncertain and unstable,” he said. “US support and investment in Malaita province could make the situation even more difficult.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made it clear that the Solomon Islands’ strategic location and United Nations membership make it a valuable partner, and has promised to invest in the country to develop its economy, combat climate change and boost its tourism industry.

In October, just two weeks after the switch, Prime Minister Sogavare visited Beijing to sign cooperation agreements on diplomacy, economic development, technology and education. The China State Railway Group proposed US$825 million to develop one of the nation’s richest mineral resources, the Gold Ridge gold mine in Guadalcanal, the island that is home to the capital Honiara.

China’s donation of US$1.6 billion to the Pacific since 2011 makes it the second largest source of aid to the region in the past decade, behind Australia, according to the Lowy Institute think tank in Sydney.

Washington and its regional allies have expressed interest in funding a deep water port in Malaita, home to more than a quarter of the Solomon Islands’ 650,000 people. The World Bank, Australia and New Zealand are also involved in the project to develop Bina Harbour, which will include supporting infrastructure such as roads.

Malaita has had a turbulent relationship with the central authorities since the Solomon Islands, where more than 60 languages are spoken, gained its independence from Britain in 1978. The province, which remains chronically underdeveloped, has been home to independence movements since at least the 1940s, and its parliament passed a resolution in favour of self-rule in 2015.

“Our central government has failed the people of Malaita since the independence of Solomon Islands until today,” said Lesley Sanga, a former newspaper journalist from the province. “All their promises of national projects for Malaita were just ghosts that never came into reality.”

The divisions have widened since the diplomatic switch as Malaita in October vowed not to accept any Chinese development loans, and announced it would formally consider independence if there was popular support.

In November, Malaita Premier Suidani – who has claimed to have been offered bribes by government MPs to support the diplomatic change – accused Beijing of ordering Prime Minister Sogavare to ensure “Malaita bows down to China”. Earlier this month, the Solomon Star newspaper reported it had received “leaked information” indicating that the central government was plotting to oust Suidani by bribing local MPs to withdraw their support for the premier.

Kenneth Sagupari, who earlier this year unsuccessfully ran for election in the Solomon Islands’ Central Province, said many people across the country, not just Malaita, opposed the decision to switch from Taiwan.

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