Police on alert as Taiwan’s flag lowered in the Solomons

Published September 17, 2019, 3:47 PM

by Dr. Eduardo Gonzales

By Agence France-Presse 

Police maintained a strong presence on the streets of the Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara Tuesday but reported no unrest following the troubled Pacific nation’s decision to switch diplomatic allegiance to China from Taiwan.

Map showing the countries that have direct diplomatic ties with Taiwan. (AFP Photo / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)
Map showing the countries that have direct diplomatic ties with Taiwan. (AFP Photo / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

The move, revealed late Monday when officials in Taipei pre-emptively severed ties with Honiara, prompted a peaceful pro-Taiwan protest on the island of Malaita.

“We’ve spoken to the police chief there and there were no incidents,” a police spokesman told AFP.

In Honiara, a group of bystanders — some waving Taiwanese flags — watched as Taipei’s embassy lowered its flag for the final time.

The issue has stirred passionate debate in a country long mired in corruption, with many viewing diplomatic manoeuvring as an attempt by the political elite to feather their own nests.

“This switch has been pushed by a few members of parliament, backed by foreign influences,” one man, who did not want to be named, told AFP on the streets of Honiara on Tuesday.

“It doesn’t reflect what we the people of this country would have chosen.”

Honiara’s Chinatown has borne the brunt of mob violence in the past, most recently when Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare was elected in April this year.

Its prosperous Chinese population — some who have been resident for generations — has long been a target for lingering resentment, exacerbated by increasing numbers of more recent migrants who locals feel are taking a stranglehold on the capital’s economy.

Chinese-owned shops were largely closed Tuesday as the news sank in that 36 years of diplomatic ties with Taiwan had ended.

Police said they had extra officers on patrol to keep the peace and meetings were underway with community groups.

“We’re reminding people not to take the law into their own hands and reminding them what’s happened in the past when protests have happened,” a police spokesman told AFP.

‘Big prize’

As well as closing its embassy, Taipei will also scrap aid programmes focused on agriculture and health, while the Solomon Star-Times reported 125 students currently on scholarships in Taiwan will have to return home.

“It is indeed regrettable that their unfinished cooperative projects must come to an end, and it is a loss for Solomon Islands people,” Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said in a statement that expressed “strong regret and condemnation” over the decision.

The Solomons’ government has not made any official statement on its decision and Sogavare cancelled a planned media conference Tuesday, citing a busy schedule.

Local media reported that the lawmakers voted 27-0 in favour of recognising China, with six abstentions.

Parliamentarian John Moffat Fugui, who headed a task force which examined the issue, said last week that Sogavare wants to formally announce the change to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York later this month.

It leaves Taiwan with just 16 nations left that recognise it, further isolating the island nation that Beijing sees as a rogue province resisting unification.

Australia’s former high commissioner to the Solomons, James Batley, said it was not a foregone conclusion that other Taiwanese allies would follow Honiara’s lead.

“I don’t think any of the Solomon Islands’ neighbours, and that includes Australia, will really be surprised by this decision,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“I don’t necessarily think that… it marks the beginning of a snowball effect, but there’s  no doubt the Solomon Islands is a big prize for China in the diplomatic battle between China and Taiwan in the Pacific.”

US Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a vocal critic of China, vowed the switch would have repercussions.

“Now I will begin exploring ways to cut off ties with the Solomon Islands, including potentially ending financial assistance and restricting access to US dollars and banking,” he tweeted.

Washington itself normalised diplomatic relations with China in 1979 and downgraded official links with Taiwan.