Taiwan just lost its biggest ally in the Pacific to China, and the US may retaliate

Taiwan just lost its biggest ally in the Pacific to China, and the US may retaliate

In this Nov. 24, 2018, photo, ships are docked offshore in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, becoming the latest country to leave the dwindling Taiwanese camp.(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

  • The Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing this week, leaving Taiwan with just 16 official allies.
  • The Solomons was Taiwan's largest remaining ally in the Pacific, and the change may draw a response from the US.
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Taiwan lost its largest ally in the Pacific on Tuesday, when the Solomon Islands confirmed it was switching diplomatic allegiance to China. A spokesman for the Solomon Islands' prime minister said the government's caucus took a poll on Monday, with 27 lawmakers voting in favor of switching and six abstaining, followed by the Cabinet voting unanimously in favor.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said Taipei "regret[s] and strongly condemn[s]" the Solomon Island's decision to switch sides and that Taiwan would close its embassy and recall all technical and medical staff there.

Read more: China's latest triumph over Taiwan points to its growing influence in the US's neighborhood

China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has sought to winner over its remaining allies, welcomed the Solomons into its Pacific family.

Beijing had offered $8.5 million in development funding to replace Taiwan's support, and the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that the switch would "will surely bring unprecedented opportunities for development" for the Solomons.

The Solomon Islands' intentions were reported earlier this month. The switch has geopolitical implications that will be felt as far away as Washington because the Solomons are directly between Australia and the US and were the site of fierce battles during World War II.

Dwindling allies

China Taiwan Solomon Islands Australia

Home to 660,000 people, the Solomons were easily Taiwan's largest remaining ally in the Pacific. Its economy relies on agriculture, fishing and forestry, and the country has a wealth of undeveloped mineral resources. It also has access to airfields and deepwater ports dating to World War II.

Now only 16 countries recognize Taiwan, including five small Pacific nations. The Marshall Islands and Palau have close ties with the US and are unlikely to switch allegiance any time soon, but experts say Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu could soon switch.

James Batley, a researcher at the Australian National University and a former Australian high commissioner in the Solomon Islands, told the Associated Press that the move didn't come as a surprise.

Read more: China is 'weaponizing capital' - and it's keeping the head of the US Navy awake at night

"The sense in Solomon Islands is that there are significant resources on offer here from China, and they want to move with the times and on the side of history," he said.

But he said the Solomons needs to be careful not to get into serious debt to China, particularly as, even before the switch, it was looking to take out big loans to fund infrastructure projects including a hydroelectric dam.
Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on China at the University of Canterbury, said the blow wasn't as severe now as it might have been in the past because Taipei has built unofficial relations with dozens of countries and the EU as part of a more pragmatic approach to its diplomacy.

Brady told the AP that the Solomons may also benefit from being able to better balance its relations with a number of larger countries, including China, the US, Australia, and New Zealand.

'Reassessing our commitment'

Solomon Islands Manasseh Sogavare

But the Solomons' decision to recognize Beijing has dismayed many at home - protesters in one major island province called for independence from the rest of the archipelago - and abroad, from the US in particular.

The day after the island country's decision was confirmed, a senior US administration official said Vice President Mike Pence would rebuff Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's request to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York City this month. "They're hurting a historically strong relationship by doing this," the official said. Fallout in the Solomons may also keep Sogavare from even attending the UN gathering.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who called on the US and international community to "push back against Beijing's bullying and efforts to isolate Taiwan" said Tuesday he would "begin exploring ways to cut off ties with [the Solomon Islands] including potentially ending financial assistance & restricting access to U.S. dollars & banking."

Read more: China says it's still willing to use force to reunify with Taiwan, and its military is getting closer to being able to do it

Rubio's response drew rebuke, as it would likely make the Solomons even more dependent on Beijing. Critics also noted the US's own recognition of Beijing in 1979 and said punishing the Solomons for switching would go against US rhetoric about a "free and open Indo-Pacific" region.

But Washington may follow through with something resembling Rubio's comments.

A senior official in the US Agency for International Development said Wednesday that the US was reviewing its assistance to the Solomons in the wake of its recognition of Beijing.

"We are reassessing our commitment to the Solomon Islands at this point," Gloria Steele, acting assistant administrator of USAID's Asia bureau, said at House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs budget hearing when asked if any funds would be directed to the Solomon Islands in fiscal year 2020, which starts October 1.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.