China is increasing its cooperation with island countries in the South Pacific Ocean after the Solomon Islands formally established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in Beijing on Saturday.
Analysts said apart from cracking down on Taiwan separatism in the diplomatic field, China will also include more countries in the region in the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).
The government of the Solomon Islands, with a total population of about 627,000, is among 14 Pacific countries.
It announced it was cutting “diplomatic ties” with the island of Taiwan on Monday and acknowledged the one-China principle.
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele signed a joint communiqué at a ceremony for the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
“The Solomon Islands acknowledges the one-China principle and the island of Taiwan is an inseparable part of China. China highly praises the stance of the Solomon Islands,” Wang said, noting history would tell the fundamental and long-term interests of this decision to the people of the Solomon Islands.
“China won’t seek unilateral interest, and our cooperation with the Solomon Islands will be equal, open and reciprocal,” the Foreign Minister said.
Lü Guixia, director of the Foreign Relations Institute of the Research Center for Pacific Island Countries affiliated to the Shandong Province-based Liaocheng University, told the Global Times on Sunday that the Solomon Islands chose to establish diplomatic relations with China out of its need to de-colonize.
“Like other Pacific island countries, the Solomon Islands used to be a colony of Britain and has been deeply affected by Australia, New Zealand and the US in the realm of politics and national defence,” Lü said.
Australia has viewed Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu as its sphere of influence and sought to interfere in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands, Lü said. “Eradicating external influence has long been the Solomon Islands’ political and diplomatic demands and its need for independent development,” she said.
Manele noted during the ceremony that the decision to establish formal diplomatic relations with China is based on the country’s national interests and the Solomon Islands needed a broad partnership.
“Now we are ready to begin a new era of relations with China,” he said.
Taiwan, under international law, is not entitled to diplomatic relations with any sovereign country in the world as it is not recognized as a country by the United Nations, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said in a statement last week.
“Our sovereign decision to sever diplomatic relations is therefore consistent with international law,” he said.
A planned meeting between US Vice President Mike Pence and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare later this month has been cancelled as the US said it was “disappointed” by the Pacific island nation cutting diplomatic ties with the island of Taiwan and forging ties with China.
At a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday, David R. Stilwell, the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, criticized China’s actions to “bully” Taiwan through “economic coercion” and “poaching” diplomatic partners.
Chen Hong, a professor and director of Australian Studies Center, East China Normal University, told the Global Times on Sunday that this reflects US anxiety and fear as the Pacific region is part of the US Indo-Pacific strategy and the US worries about China’s influence in the region.
“China has no intention to compete with the US or Australia as it just wants to engage in the economic development of the region, which will benefit China as well,” Chen said.
“It is a process of trade and investment, which is economic activities, but the US twists it as a competition.”
After formally establishing diplomatic ties, the Solomon Islands and China will see closer political and economic cooperation, which will also benefit the regional development of the entire Pacific islands, according to Chinese observers.
Even prior to the establishment of official diplomatic relations, China was the largest export destination for the Solomon Islands with 65.2 percent of the country’s merchandise exported to China in 2017, according to the official statistics. Now, deepened ties will offer greater business and growth opportunities to the Pacific Island country and help create more development synergies in the region, said analysts.
In 2018, China-Solomon Islands trade reached 2 billion Solomon Islands dollars ($242 million), with China the largest single trading partner of the country in total trade volume.
China has already started to increase cooperation with countries in the region under the BRI framework. Chinese President Xi Jinping met leaders of Pacific island countries with diplomatic relations with China in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea on November 2018, to exchange views on bilateral ties and pragmatic cooperation.
At the meeting, President of the Federated States of Micronesia Peter Christian said the BRI was quite important for regional development and his country was willing to expand cooperation with China in trade and tourism, as well as to further communicate and coordinate on tackling climate change.
Song Wei, an associate research fellow at the Ministry of Commerce’s Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation in Beijing said the China-proposed BRI can promote connectivity in the South Pacific region.
Song noted China has assisted Tonga and Samoa with Modern Ark 60 airliners and Y12 aircraft, giving South Pacific island countries a boost of regional connectivity.
Song said as Taiwan only used its money and aid to maintain “ties” with Pacific island countries, it has totally detached from trade and economic activities and will not last long.
“Without investment and trade, no commercial capitals can be brought in to form a whole industrial chain. When the role of aid cannot be brought into full play and no commercial capitals are mobilized, aid programs can hardly sustain,” Song told.