A pop vox by the Central News Agency (CNA) in the Solomon Islands’ capital, Honiara, on the prospect of the government ending diplomatic ties with Taipei found that many respondents are concerned with Beijing’s growing influence over the Pacific nation’s economic life.
Taiwan and the Solomon Islands established diplomatic relations in 1983, but the new government that took power after winning April’s general election formed a task force to evaluate the impact of China’s assistance to other Pacific island nations.
The task force visited several of Beijing’s island allies in recent months and submitted a report to the executive department last week, while the Solomon Islands parliament last week also discussed a possible switch.
CNA has learned that some government officials have expressed support for recognizing Beijing, but almost all non-governmental organizations’ representatives at the parliamentary session supported Taipei.
Ambassador to the Solomon Islands Oliver Liao (廖文哲) told the news agency that 80 to 90 percent of Solomons Islanders support keeping diplomatic ties with Taipei.
Tsai Ming-hua (蔡明華), deputy head of the local Taiwanese business association, also said public opinion is on the side of Taiwan.
A majority of residents that CNA talked to this week on the streets of Honiara said they supported Taipei and several expressed concern about Beijing’s intentions.
Twenty-three-year-old taxi driver Ken Ilabae said Taiwan is a true friend to the Solomon Islands in times of crisis.
He was referring to a long dispute between two ethnic groups from the main islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita between 1998 and 2003 that brought the country to the brink of collapse.
Ilabae said Taipei stuck with Honiara and helped the Solomon Islands rebuild, adding that like most Solomon Islanders he prefers to stay with Taiwan, but it is up to the politicians to make that decision.
Fishmonger Eremina Damola said Taiwan has helped farmers improve their agricultural techniques.
“The relationship makes us good friends,” she added.
Christopher Narasia, a 50-year-old fruit and vegetable vendor, praised Taiwan for both its agricultural assistance and the scholarships it provides to students.
According to Taiwan’s embassy, the country offers about 125 scholarships annually for study in Taiwan.
When asked about their impressions of China, many had a largely negative view.
Sam Siru, a security guard at the central bank, said that Chinese employers pay local employees only half the average salary, which is not enough to pay the bills.
The Chinese have “taken over the shopping industry and the locals are being pushed to the corners,” he said, adding it is a serious issue for the Solomon Islands right now.
Asked about the possible switch, Narasia said ordinary Solomons Islanders do not understand why the government is considering the move.
“They have to tell us what is good about China, because we still do not know. We know about Taiwan, we still do not know about China. We should know what is good about both sides before we can make a decision,” he added.
However, it is debatable whether the government is going to take public opinion into account, said Robert Luke Iroga, a former adviser to former Solomon Islands prime minister Gordon Darcy Lilo.
“If we go for a vote, I think public opinion would give almost seven or eight out of 10 for Taiwan. China would be 2 or 3,” said Iroga, who now runs the monthly Solomon Business Magazine.
Whether the politicians would listen to public opinion “is a big challenge,” he added.
Politicians “may have their own agenda” and they are the ones who have the final say in politics, he added.
China has been trying to solicit the support of more local politicians, he said.
“In doing that, they have been encouraging politicians to visit China. They have sent people who have close relationships with the Chinese to talk to MPs,” he added.
However, what concerns him most about China’s promised investment is that it could cause the nation to fall into a debt trap, as has happened to other diplomatic allies of Beijing in the region, Iroga said.
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