Amid reports that the Solomon Islands might sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, visiting Solomon Islands Minister of Foreign Affairs Jeremiah Manele on Monday last week attended a banquet hosted by Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮). American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Director Brent Christensen also attended.
Looking at Taiwan’s attempts to hold on to its diplomatic allies over the past few years, the US’ changing attitude is very clear, and its “invisible hand” is becoming increasingly visible as it lends Taiwan more support.
On Feb. 22, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo submitted a statement to the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit, saying that, “Palau, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, and the United States all share a profound commitment to democracy and open societies. These shared values are the foundation of, and a driving force in, our relationships. Taiwan is also a democratic success story, a reliable partner, and a force for good in the world. As [US] Vice President Mike Pence said: ‘America will always believe Taiwan’s embrace of democracy is an example to be internationally supported. We respect and support the decision those of you have made to continue to support Taiwan.’”
However, the main event took place in late May, when US President Donald Trump received the presidents of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau at the White House.
The three states were all part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands before becoming freely associated with the US under the Compact of Free Association. They have long received economic and national security assistance from the US, but it was the first time the national leaders of the three states had been received by a US president.
Early last month, Pompeo visited Micronesia, the first visit there by a US secretary of state. During the visit, he also met with Palauan Vice President Raynold Oilouch and Marshallese President Hilda Heine.
The US is making it clear that China’s expansion in the region is forcing the US to turn its gaze to the South Pacific and that it will not lightly abandon any state, no matter the size.
As for the Solomon Islands, Taiwanese military for the first time openly participated in a Pacific Partnership humanitarian relief training mission in the country in August last year, and when Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Hsu Szu-chien (徐斯儉) visited the country in early March, he “happened to meet” with US National Security Council Senior Director Matt Pottinger. The US embassy in Port Moresby, later published a picture of the two.
When Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare was voted back into power in April, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale called to congratulate him. One of the main points of their conversation was the establishment of a partnership with democratic countries, including Taiwan.
Prompted by the US, Australia — which has always looked upon the South Pacific as its own backyard — is also taking action to protect its own turf:
In early June, Canberra announced that it would allocate A$250 million (US$172 million) to help finance infrastructure in the Solomon Islands.
The assistance would not only include hardware such as the construction of a foreign ministry building and prime ministerial offices, but also soccer training facilities and encouragement to Solomon Islands citizens to work in Australia, all aimed at winning the public’s hearts and minds.
These are but further measures aimed at blocking China’s influence in the South Pacific. Last year, Australia invested in a 4,000km optical fiber cable between Sydney and the Solomon Islands. Huawei Technologies Co had been earmarked to build the cable.
China is relying on its political, economic and military power to expand into the South Pacific. Regardless of whether it is aiming to poach Taiwan’s six diplomatic allies in the region or set up strategic points on a “maritime silk road,” the US government is mobilizing its whole diplomatic and national security apparatus, from the US National Security Council and the US Department of State to the US Department of Defense to nip China’s attempts in the bud, because it worries that the Solomon Islands will be the first domino to fall and thus blow a hole in the US’ “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy.
During its attempts to maintain Taiwan’s 17 diplomatic allies, the Taiwan-US partnership is growing closer. Together with the ongoing expansion of shared interests with Australia and other allies in the region, Taiwan’s role as an Indo-Pacific hub will become more important.
Chen Yung-chang is deputy secretary-general of the Taipei Chamber of Commerce.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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