The loss of the Solomon Islands as a diplomatic ally on Monday was clearly a blow to Taiwan’s foreign affairs and the nation’s campaign to enlarge its international presence. China’s move was aimed at hurting Taiwan and its timing was significant. However, the move is also part of a larger chess game for regional supremacy that includes Taiwan’s natural allies, such as the US, Australia and Japan.
Announcing its decision to pre-emptively break off ties with the Solomon Islands, the government criticized Beijing for using dollar diplomacy as it continues to suppress Taiwan’s international space.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs added that the timing was part of a deliberate attempt to influence Taiwan’s presidential election — which it probably will, although which party would benefit from Beijing’s latest bullying tactics could be debated — and it accused China of orchestrating the situation so that the switch would occur before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1.
Taiwan’s roster of diplomatic allies is now 16. This diminishes the nation’s presence globally, as Taiwan relies on its allies to give it a voice in the international forums that Beijing blocks it from participating in.
Of those 16, five — Palau, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvali — are in the South Pacific. If Taipei is worried that the loss of the Solomon Islands would set off a domino effect leading to some, or all, of the others switching allegiance to Beijing, then other major players in the region have even more reasons to be concerned.
Last year, there were reports of China building military bases on Vanuatu. Beijing denied the reports, and little has come of them since. However, the very thought of it was a wake-up call for Canberra, which would have been faced with the prospect of having a Chinese military base in its backyard. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would have had the ability to project its military power much farther into the Western Pacific than it can at present.
The Solomon Islands were used by the US and Japan during World War II because of the potential for air bases and deep-water harbors. What has not yet come to pass in Vanuatu might still happen, and later be part of an extended network that includes the Solomon Islands. If Taiwan’s other allies in the region also switch, the PLA would have significant penetration into the “second island chain” — and “there goes the neighborhood.”
Beijing, then, is showing its hand, not only in its continued mission to hurt Taiwan and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, but as part of its wider geopolitical strategy. This strategy includes enhanced military projection into the Western Pacific, threatening US-aligned regional players such as Australia, Japan and South Korea, and also frustrating Washington’s strategy of creating a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” which would give the US more leverage in the region.
The US needs to maintain its level of perceived influence and reliability in the region, as partners such as Australia are becoming increasingly alarmed at reports that the PLA is becoming capable of winning a limited regional engagement with the US. Other countries that are torn between China and the US might also side with Beijing.
No wonder US Vice President Mike Pence was so frustrated by the Solomon Islands’ decision that on Tuesday he canceled a meeting scheduled for later this month with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York City.
Beijing has made a smart move, but the game has other players — and it is time they upped their game.
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