For days, chaos rocked downtown Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. The unrest was sparked in part by allegations of interference by Taiwan and China in local politics, and the city’s Chinatown, subjected to arson attacks and looting, was the hub of the violence. By the time Australian forces had been deployed to restore calm, the district was ashes and rubble, with 90 percent of Chinese-owned businesses destroyed.
If this sounds like recent news from the Solomon Islands, it’s actually a description of a remarkably similar incident in April 2006. Then, as now, Taiwan and China’s “diplomatic chess” exacerbated an already rough-and-tumble game of Pacific rugby, to paraphrase Australian journalist Graeme Dobell, who has been covering the Asia-Pacific region for over 45 years.
“The havoc in Honiara,” wrote Dobell in a 2007 policy paper for the Lowy Institute, “is a physical expression of the destructive impact that Taiwan and China can have on small Island states.” Dobell went on to quote Stuart Harris, an expert on China’s foreign policy and former head of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, on the gravity of a cross-strait wrangle played out on Melanesian soil.
“We found that in the Solomon Islands, where governments are totally disorientated – in fact just about destroyed – by interventions of this kind … just a few bribes to the right people at the top and you have undermined the whole governing system,” Harris told the Australian Senate Foreign Affairs Committee just months before extra troops were dispatched from Australia and New Zealand to bolster the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) forces that had been in the Solomons since 2003.
In fact, while the bribery became more sophisticated, it had previously been indiscriminate. In June 2001, a US$25-million loan to the Solomons from Taiwan’s Export Import Bank (EXIM) was announced by Taipei. The suitably vaguely stated purpose was to foster peace by compensating the victims of the ethnic conflict that had ravaged the islands since 1998.
But while some of the money went to legitimate causes – displaced families and unpaid civil servants – the lion’s share ended up lining the pockets of politicians and militia leaders. Armed gangs held up government ministers for “compensation” as Honiara descended into mob rule.
Although it is unclear what role the China-Taiwan dynamic played in last week’s unrest, Beijing’s successful 2019 bid to lure Honiara from Taipei’s ever-dwindling fold of diplomatic allies has been widely cited as a factor.
Having had its foreign policy standing severely undermined by a series of missteps and scandals under the administration of former president Chen Shui-bian, the Democratic Progressive Party was keen to clean shop under President Tsai Ing-wen. On assuming power in 2016, Tsai made assurances that there would be no return to past venality.
When Honiara announced “the switch,” as it is known in the Solomons, in 2019, Tsai reiterated this stance. “I want to emphasize that Taiwan will not engage in dollar diplomacy with China in order to satisfy unreasonable demands,” she said.
But at least one Solomons member of parliament disputed this. “They wanted to give us one million [US] dollars to sign for Taiwan then after … we will receive another [US$1 million] into our account,” said Titus Fika, who until his death November 19 after a prolonged illness had served in the cabinet of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.
In Taipei, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spokesperson Joanne Ou strenuously rebutted this claim, and, as a pro-Beijing MP who headed a taskforce that recommended the switch, Fika was not impartial.
However, Taipei cannot deny having extended free medical treatment (and presumably flights to Taiwan) to Daniel Suidani, premier of Malaita, the Solomons’ most populous island, in June. Indeed, MOFA seemed happy to publicize this offer of assistance, with Ou stressing that it stemmed from “humanitarian concern.”
The Washington-based think-tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which like many of Taiwan’s ardent backers in the U.S. is known for hawkish leanings, also talked up Taiwan’s altruism.
In choosing to disregard the diplomatic rupture and extend the offer of assistance to Suidani, Tsai “took a stand, for the people of the Solomons, the people of Taiwan, and for all of us,” wrote FDD senior fellow Cleo Paskal in a gushing op-ed for the Indian weekly The Sunday Guardian. (It should be noted that the editorial director of the newspaper is M.D. Nalapat, who, as an adviser to Prime Indian Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao in 1992 pushed for the establishment of representative offices in Taipei and Delhi. Paskal indicates in her column that Nalapat played a role in securing treatment for Suidani.)
The fervently pro-Taipei Suidani was a vocal opponent of the switch. In fact, most of the rioters in last week’s unrest in Honiara, which is on the island of Guadalcanal, were from Malaita. Following Suidani’s lead, Malaitians have continued to agitate for independence and their own separate relationship with Taipei.
The withdrawal of Taiwanese technical assistance from Malaita, which greatly boosted agricultural output and goodwill for Taiwan, has been cited by Suidani and his followers as a prime motivation for the unrest.
Taipei insists that politics played no part in the offer of assistance to Suidani, but one wonders whether the late Titus Fika, also a Malaitian, would have received a positive response had he requested support.
And what of the 100-plus university students from the Solomons who were resident in Taiwan when the switch was announced? There was little compassion in the decision to cancel their scholarships and give them until the end of the semester to leave the country.
While Fika flew to Brisbane to receive treatment that ultimately proved unsuccessful, following a GoFundMe campaign to cover flights to the same city, Suidani concluded that the medical fees there were unmanageable. That’s when Taiwan stepped in.
Speaking of Brisbane, reports that Taiwanese diplomats conducted clandestine meetings there with Solomons officials last March over the provision of COVID-relief packages to Malaita should raise eyebrows.
The fostering of goodwill through civic, people-to-people ties has become a focus of Taiwan’s soft-power diplomacy in recent years and, in and of itself, is a positive development. However, Suidani’s unveiling of these aid consignments during ostentatious ceremonies featuring the Republic of China flag has been provocative.
Citing violation of the “one China policy,” Honiara has seized some of these deliveries, while Beijing has branded them “illegal.” Meanwhile, as Suidani continues to hint that Malaita will pursue ties with Taiwan, MOFA has stopped short of ruling out such an arrangement.
Recent history has shown the Solomons is a tinderbox of complex ethnic tensions, corruption, and competing local interests. With Chinese largesse said to have swayed a no-confidence vote in Sogavare’s favor on Monday, the merest flicker could reignite the smouldering embers. If Taiwan wants to be a true friend to its former diplomatic ally, it will avoid providing the kindling.