A Cohort of 16 Solomon Islands MPs have issued a strong warning against the Pacific nation moving its diplomatic relations from Taiwan to Beijing, voicing concern over the “compromised freedoms” a political allegiance to China could usher in.

The Parliamentarians open letter was published on Tuesday on the Facebook page of the local business magazine.

It comes as a special taskforce set up by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to investigate the pros and cons of ditching its 36 year relationship with Taiwan – travelled to Beijing this week on a “fact-finding mission”.

The taskforce has also visited Papua New Guinea and other Pacific nations over the past few months to see firsthand the impact of Chinese aid and development assistance.

PM Manasseh Sogavare
Photo: Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare at United Nations General Assembly.

The Solomon Islands is among 17 countries that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan and not Beijing, but after coming into power earlier this year, Mr Sogavare said he was open to the idea of making the switch, setting up the bipartisan taskforce helmed by Minister John Moffat Fugui in late June.

But in the open letter, some of the country’s most Senior Cabinet Ministers such as Foreign Minister Jeremaiah Manele and the former Prime Minister Rick Hou said they would not back a pivot to Beijing and what they call its “Marxist” ideologies.

“We state very clearly that we will not support any policy to change Solomon Islands diplomatic ties from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” the letter said.

“We believe the long-term interests of our country in terms of our development aspirations, as well as respect for democratic principles, human rights, rule of law, human dignity and mutual respect, lie with Taiwan not the PRC.”

The Ministers also expressed concern over Solomon Islands being caught in a crossfire from the current trade war between China and the US.

“We are aware some people are easily lured by the current glitters of the PRC’s economic power. “We note that ‘not all that glitters is gold!”

“We are aware of important lessons from many countries including in our region, who are locked in a serious debt trap as a result of their giving in to China’s lures. We are aware of examples of governments which have compromised their religious freedoms, surrendered their land rights, compromised the rule of law, and even their people’s cultural heritage, as a result of succumbing to the infiltration´s of these ideologies in their societies,” it said.

But Solomon Islands Opposition Leader Matthew Wale lashed out at the ministers’ letter, accusing them of “insincere politics”.

“It is clear… that the Prime Minister has been pro-Taiwan from right the beginning,” he said.

Sharing the concerns the Ministers listed in their letter, Ruth Liloqula from the corruption watchdog Transparency International Solomon Islands pointed to the “problems” other Pacific nations that had strong diplomatic ties with China were having, such as the “erosion of democratic principles”.

“Nothing is done in a transparent manner…We know that only a few people will benefit and these are mostly going to be members of parliament as well as their spin doctors,” she said.”

The letter also noted that Taiwan was one of the Solomon Islands’ most trustworthy allies and a “genuine friend”, referring to the Taiwanese Embassy remained in the capital Honiara through the so-called tensions and ethnic violence of the late 1990s, the only Foreign Embassy to do so.

One of the main planks of Taiwan’s aid to the Solomon Islands comes in the form of constituency development funds, money given to individual MPs to use as they see fit.

Anti-corruption groups have criticised the payments, calling them slush funds that are used to garner electoral support and not promote development.

Former Solomon Islands leader Rick Hou and his wife with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen
Photo: Former Solomon Islands leader Rick Hou and his wife with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.

As the Head of the taskforce, Mr. Moffat Furgui previously said the issue was not as simple as China versus Taiwan and that there could be a middle ground found.

However, according to Pacific expert Tess Newton Caine, who has worked for the United Nations and World Bank in the region, the Solomon Islands “can’t have its cake and eat it too”.

She said that if Solomon Islands were to seek change, it would significantly affect the current, “extensive” developments assistance Taiwan provided, which was “very prominent in the spaces of agriculture and health”.

“I’ve heard Taiwanese officials say… that the aid would be withdrawn overnight,” she said.”

The MPs behind the open letter want the taskforce’s review broadened to look at all of the country’s diplomatic relations.

‘It’s a Question of Not if, but When’

The Solomon Islands is among 17 Nations to recognise Taiwan, just half the number that did in the 1990s. Since 2016, China has poached five of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.

China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province with no right to state-to-state ties, and one that will eventually be part of the PRC again.

However many Taiwanese want a separate nation, and the dispute has left a constant threat of violence hanging in the air.

Last month China announced fresh restrictions on individual tourism to Taiwan to put pressure on the island.

Should it switch its diplomatic allegiance, the Solomons, currently Taiwan’s biggest ally in the Pacific would be a prized ally for Beijing as it ramps up its influence in the Pacific.

China has been steadily growing its footprint in the region, with governments there sinking into billions of dollars of debt as they sign on to projects linked to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s infamous Belt and Road initiative.

Dr. Newton Caine said there were strong indications that pressure was mounting for Mr. Sogavare to take advantage of the infrastructure support that initiative could bring to the Solomons.

Earlier this week, Beijing suggested Australia reflect on how it engages its Pacific neighbours after Fiji’s Prime Minister accused Scott Morrison of being “insulting and condescending” at last week’s Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Tuvalu.

In June, Mr. Morrison pressed ahead with the Australian Government’s ambitious Pacific step up, reshaping Australia’s aid program in Solomon Islands by pledging $250 million for infrastructure during a lightning quick visit to Honiara.

The US, meanwhile, has urged Pacific nations with ties to Taipei to maintain the status quo.

But if it came down to a bidding war, experts said it would be difficult for many nations to compete with the economic might of China.

“There does seem to be a sense on the ground of inevitability. Should China choose to, they do have more on the table,” said Jonathan Pyke, Director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands programme.

“It’s a question of not if, but when.”

Editor’s note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.