By Jonathan Barrett
SYDNEY (Reuters) – A Solomon Islands task force recommended to the government on Friday that the South Pacific archipelago sever its long-standing ties with Taiwan and normalise diplomatic relations with Beijing.
The recommendation is likely to help Beijing peel away another ally from self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing considers a wayward province with no right to state-to-state ties.
The parliamentary task force advised the government to switch ties to China and invite it to establish a diplomatic mission in the capital, Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal, according to a copy of its report obtained by Reuters.
“The findings reveal that Solomon Islands stands to benefit a lot if it switches and normalizes diplomatic relations with PRC,” the task force said, referring to China by its official name of the People’s Republic of China.
The recommendation was discussed at a cabinet meeting on Friday, two sources with direct knowledge of the issue said. It has not been presented to parliament.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has repeatedly said the government would not make a formal decision until reviewing the findings of the task force, which has toured the Pacific studying Chinese aid and bilateral financing.
Taiwan’s representative office in the Solomon Islands called the report a “fallacy” in a Facebook post and said the task force members did not conduct proper fact-finding.
The government of the Solomon Islands did not respond to questions.
China’s foreign ministry did not immediately comment.
A diplomatic switch by the Solomons would reduce the number of countries that recognise Taiwan to 16, after El Salvador in Central America, Burkina Faso in West Africa and the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean, all switched to Beijing last year.
The South Pacific has been a diplomatic stronghold for Taiwan, where formal ties with six island nations make up more than a third of its total alliances, though China has in recent years been expanding its influence in the region.
Solomon Island lawmakers who support maintaining ties with Taiwan will want the report to be made public, and to get feedback before any decision is made, according to one of the sources.
Taiwan’s supporters, who include many university students, would like the decision delayed until Sogavare travels to the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York later this month, in the hope talks he has there might save the Taiwan alliance.
The issue has divided loyalties in the former British protectorate, an archipelago of just over 600,000 people.
The United States has criticised China for pushing poor countries into debt, mainly through lending for large-scale infrastructure projects, and accused China of using “predatory economics” to destabilise the Indo-Pacific region.
China denies that.
One Solomon Islands province has said it would not be responsible for repaying any debts incurred by the government, according to media reports.
(Graphic: Tug of war in the Pacific – https://graphics.reuters.com/PACIFIC-SAMOA-CHINA/0100B0D30T6/PACIFIC1.jpg)
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett in SYDNEY; Additional reporting by Andrew Galbraith in SHANGHAI and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Robert Birsel)