By Tom Westbrook
SYDNEY (Reuters) – The Solomon Islands, one of Taiwan’s remaining allies in the Pacific, will send a delegation to study Chinese aid in neighbouring countries as it considers a diplomatic switch to Beijing, the delegation leader said on Monday.
The Solomons has recognised Taiwan since 1983 and would be a prized chip should it swap diplomatic ties as China seeks to expand its influence and presence in the Pacific.
A taskforce set up by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to review the Taiwan relationship will visit the island nations of Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Papua New Guinea which all have formal ties with China.
The tour will begin this week and include Beijing and Taipei, taskforce chairman John Moffat Fugui told Reuters.
“We will use their countries as case studies to see the kind of development relations they have, the kind of assistance they get, the conditionalities or lack of conditionalities they might have, the kind of governance,” Fugui, a government legislator, said by phone from the Solomons’ capital, Honiara.
“We will do due diligence,” he said, adding the taskforce report was expected by the end of August and could recommend a middle course.
“It’s not either or, it’s also both,” he said, without elaborating on such a scenario.
The Solomon Islands is among 17 nations to recognise self-ruled and democratic Taiwan, which China regards as a wayward province with no right to state-to-state ties.
Although the relationship with Taiwan comes with generous aid payments, the Solomons sends two-thirds of its exports to China and is weighing the merits of a change.
Taiwan Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Andrew Lee told reporters in Taipei on Tuesday that all bilateral projects are running “very smoothly” and communications channels with the Solomons are also “very smooth”.
“We have shown our sincerity to continue bilateral projects to the new government,” Lee said. “We continue to demonstrate our will to deepen diplomatic ties.”
China’s footprint in the Pacific has been growing, with governments there owing about $1.3 billion to Beijing and raising fears in the West that the region is becoming more susceptible to Chinese influence.
Although Pacific islands offer little economically to either China or Taiwan, their support is valued in global forums such as the United Nations. The Solomons – the scene of decisive battles in World War II – is a particular flashpoint.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison this month made the first visit by an Australian leader to the Solomons in a decade, and the United States has urged Pacific nations with ties to Taipei to maintain the status quo.
Fugui said the seven-member taskforce could leave as early as Thursday and would keep an open mind in meetings with foreign leaders, diplomats and business leaders during the tour.
“I think there are concerns about the countries that have relations with China in terms of the style of development they have because China is a great power,” he said.
“In terms of a small island state, that is a huge jump from having relations with our traditional partners…(but) at the same time we need to catch the opportunity to look at it and look at it properly.”
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY. Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Yimou Lee in TAIPEI’ editing by Darren Schuettler)