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International relations

China scores big win with Solomons switch from Taiwan

The move is a 'huge blow to Washington and Canberra'

The Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing on Monday.

TAIPEI -- The decision by the Solomon Islands on Monday to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China is nothing short of a big win for Beijing. And Taipei is not the only loser.

"This move by the Solomon Islands is a huge blow to Washington and Canberra," said Amy Searight, senior adviser and director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Southeast Asia Program.

"For the Trump Administration, the decision by the Solomon Islands is a double whammy," Searight said. "It undercuts efforts to boost ties with the Pacific islands to balance against surging Chinese influence in the region, and it leaves Taiwan more diplomatically isolated and vulnerable at a time when the Trump administration has sought to strengthen Taipei's international position."

Closer to the Solomons, the government of Scott Morrison in Australia will now find itself with yet another China-friendly government nearby, this one located in the strategically significant waters between Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Any potential ambitions by Beijing to have a naval presence in the Solomons could one day have ramifications for Australia's Pacific access.

The Solomon Islands government's decision to abandon ties with Taiwan's government also makes for a rare piece of good news for the Chinese Communist Party's domestic audience.

With Oct. 1 marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, Beijing could use more reasons to celebrate as its economy continues to slow, African swine fever pushes food prices higher and China's international image deteriorates over the unrest in Hong Kong and its repressive tactics in Xinjiang.

The thwarting of a coordinated attempt by the U.S. and Australia to persuade the Solomons to continue its now-ended 36-year relationship with Taiwan is a major diplomatic victory for Beijing over its primary global rival.

American officials have recently traveled to the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara to discourage parliamentarians there from switching allegiance, urging caution and advising them to ask for details about funding, whether they are loans or grants, Searight noted.

Meanwhile, Australia's "Step Up" policy in the Pacific has included a commitment to construct an undersea communications cable to the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, in place of China's embattled state champion Huawei, which had tendered a competitive bid on the project.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the decision by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's cabinet was that it appeared to ignore warnings from none other than the country's own central bank.

Prior to Monday's news breaking, the Central Bank of Solomon Islands released a report announcing it had determined the country will not be able to absorb any additional borrowing from China if it were to switch.

Highlighting the issues of debt, fiscal revenue and a likely unfavorable reaction by Washington, the report said the risks of switching recognition merited further consideration, as going into further debt with China could lead to debt distress or default. As China's development of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and Columbo's eventual 99-year-handover of the facility to Beijing after running into debt problems suggests, an indebted Honiara may find itself giving up more to China than it initially imagined.

While the Freely Associated States of Micronesia may be the biggest strategic prize among the Pacific Island nations, the flipping of the Solomon Islands will reverberate throughout the region.

Washington and Canberra have been increasingly keen to use recognition of Taiwan's government as a way of keeping China from raising its profile in the Pacific. The Solomon Islands was the most populous of the six countries in the region that still recognized Taipei.

For these countries, which China is also seeking to woo away from Taiwan, the decision by the Solomon Islands will very likely align in their minds with the insistence by Beijing that recognizing China is indeed part of an unstoppable "great historical trend."

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