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  • JTMS Intern Cameron Whiteside

The Solomon Islands' Geopolitical Strategy for Recognition by the U.S., Taiwan, and PRC


Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Photo from the Associated Press, Mark Schiefelbein


I. Introduction

Last year, China once again forged closer ties to the Solomon Islands, a decision made before by the United States and Taiwan, as an effort to devote attention and influence to the region. Since the Solomon Islands’ decision to switch its recognition from Taiwan to the PRC in 2019, the United States has invested in the Solomon Islands by opening an embassy to compete for influence and protect Taiwan’s interests. Prior to 2019, Taiwan maintained considerable geopolitical ties with the Solomon Islands in exchange for recognition as the “One China.” Why is Taiwan, the United States and China, three economic powerhouses, following each other’s lead to devote attention and resources to a small island-nation? What is the motivation to offer a security pact and why is Taiwan and the United States pressing the Solomon Islands to reverse course in forging closer ties to China? The answer lies in the fact that the three countries are competing for recognition, rather than economic investment. By offering aid and security, the U.S., PRC, and Taiwan receive recognition, which is especially important to Taiwan and China due to the “One China” principle. The PRC’s closer ties to the Solomon Islands in 2022, along with the recognition it received in 2019, gives the PRC more of a stronghold in the region and leaves Taiwan weaker. This places pressure on the U.S. because Taiwan is a U.S. ally, whose success is integral to U.S. hegemony in the region. Thus, the U.S. has responded with the opening of a new embassy in the Solomon Islands and a new Indo-Pacific strategy announced by President Biden to pivot the U.S. closer to East Asia. The United States, as part of its grand strategy to pivot closer to Asia, is emulating China and Taiwan’s strategy to maintain greater geopolitical influence and protect Taiwan’s interests. All in the name of recognition and influence in the region, not economic investment.


II. History of ROC’s Geopolitical Investments

Following the United States’ reopening of diplomatic ties with China in the 1970s, Taiwan vied for both diplomatic recognition in the United Nations and for recognition as the only China. As pointed out by Atkinson and Biddick, the independence of Pacific Island nations gave Taiwan the opportunity to invest in and, moreover, obtain diplomatic recognition. Since the 1980s, the Solomon Islands has enjoyed “high-level political and security contacts as well as economic development projects,[i]” which catalyzed the Solomon Islands’ recognition of Taiwan. The acclaimed investment from Taiwan, as well as the perceived animus from Canberra that Taiwan was interfering in elections and the composition of the Solomon’s government, enticing the PRC into following Taiwan’s lead.


III. The PRC Follows Taiwan’s Lead

Recently, China has forged stronger ties with the Solomon Islands, including a policing deal as recently as this year. While there is little economic opportunity in the Solomon Islands, the investment paid off when the country switched recognition from Taiwan to the PRC. Solomon Islands’ Minister of Foreign Affairs Jeremiah Manele made the switch to prioritize “national needs.[ii]” China’s investment growth usurped Taiwan’s, leading to the perception among Solomon’s leaders that “Taiwanese investors [had] shown less interest in investing in economic development than political interests” with China, assuring the Solomon Islands “that it would provide aid to fill the gap left by Taiwan’s departure in the transition period.[iii]” Despite criticism that Taiwan was providing too much support for diplomatic recognition and millions for parliamentarians to use at their discretion, the Solomon Islands demanded more economic support through engagement with China. Following the announcement, the United States showed disapproval of the switch to the PRC, with Vice President Mike Pence canceling plans to meet with the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, criticizing China for “pushing [countries] into debt and compromising their sovereignty.[iv]” The U.S. is especially concerned about the security of the Solomon Islands, following the signing of a policing deal with the PRC. According to the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Police, National Security and Correctional Services, the “agreement… covered policing” and “shows to the global community that [the Solomon Islands is] building meaningful cooperation,” with Chinese naval ships being able to “carry out logistical replenishments.[v]” To address this and to follow China’s suit, the U.S. has engaged in an economic partnership with the Solomon Islands.

Even more recently, the Solomon Islands and China have maintained immense secrecy regarding a security deal, which was only made public due to a leak on social media. According to Patricia O’Brien, the document would “provide ‘legal and judicial immunity’ for all Chinese personnel” to “allow large-scale and varied Chinese military and intelligence operations” in order to “[maintain] civil order.”[vi] According to the leaked document, which was posted to Twitter by Dr. Anna Powles of the University of New Zealand’s Centre for Defense and Security Studies, the Solomon Islands must “provide necessary facilities and assistance,” including “intelligence support, [and] logistical support.” This means that the Solomon Islands would be giving China access to its territory and intelligence operations, which allows China to expand its influence and challenge the United States.


IV. The U.S. Follows China

During a visit to Fiji with Pacific Island leaders, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced plans for a new embassy in the Solomon Islands.[vii] An embassy would help U.S. allies, such as Australia, address recent riots that occurred in the Solomon Islands last year in November.[viii] Previous riots also broke out in 2006, following a free and fair election. However, the opening of a U.S. embassy is geopolitical, rather than economic, and would not address the riots. Investing in the Solomon Islands is beneficial for a U.S. grand strategy that seeks more involvement in the Indo-Pacific, further support of Taiwan and a challenge aimed at China’s geopolitical and geoeconomic expansion. While the U.S. is not competing for recognition from the Solomon Islands or independent Pacific Island nations, the U.S. views any expansion of China’s partnerships as a threat to U.S. hegemony and place on the world stage. The U.S. Embassy allows “more diplomatic and security resources into the Pacific to counter China’s drive for greater influence.[ix]


V. Analysis: Geopolitics and Checkbook Diplomacy

While the new embassy could lead to the training of officials, a potential exigency following the November 2021 riots that would allow the U.S. to rely less on its consulate in the Solomon Islands and embassy in Papua New Guinea, the move is an emulation of China’s expansion in the Pacific. In fact, the Biden administration has endorsed greater U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific to “meet urgent challenges,” which include “competition with China.[x]” Writers at the English language daily, Global Times, have classified the decision as a move to “woo Pacific Island nations [which] demonstrates its anxiety over China’s deepened relationship with those countries.[xi]” The United States is presentiment on China’s rise in the Pacific Islands region and its willingness to convince nations to abide by a one-China policy that recognizes the PRC. These investments often involve minimal terms or conditions. By investing in a diplomatic, and perhaps geoeconomic, presence in the Solomon Islands, the U.S. can impede China’s aforementioned goals while protecting Taiwan’s interests, all behind a veil of assisting Canberra with future riots and unrest. However, this investment in the Solomon Islands follows a history of competing for geopolitical influence from the Solomon Islands.

The decision made by China and the United States to invest in the Solomon Islands is part of a geopolitical strategy that grows via checkbook diplomacy: one that seeks recognition for the former and reinforces influence in the region for the latter. As pointed out by Joel Atkinson, Taiwan bought “diplomatic recognition” from countries, which led to China providing “incentives of its own to stop these countries from recognizing Taiwan.”[xii] Similar to China’s emulation of Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts to gain recognition, according to Jeffrey Bayder of the Brookings Institute, the United States should and is competing against China through investments in the Solomon Islands[xiii], similar to China’s emulation of Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts to gain recognition. Opening an embassy or investing in foreign aid in the Solomon Islands isn’t a geoeconomic investment: It’s to compete against China, which has already “bought its way in with an array of relatively cheap goodies,” which include “a willingness to construct buildings and sporting facilities”, as well as “tourism and the extension of trade.”[xiv]


VI. Conclusion: Who benefits?

Investing in the Solomon Islands is beneficial for a U.S. grand strategy that seeks more involvement in the Indo-Pacific, further support of Taiwan and a challenge aimed at China’s geopolitical and geoeconomic expansion. While the U.S. is not competing for recognition from the Solomon Islands or independent Pacific Island nations, the U.S. views any expansion of China’s partnerships as a threat to U.S. hegemony and place on the world stage. According to Humerya Pamuk of Reuters, the U.S. Embassy allows “more diplomatic and security resources into the Pacific as a counter to China’s drive for greater influence.[xv]” While the new embassy could lead to the training of officials following the November 2021 riots and allow the U.S. to rely less on its consulate in the Solomon Islands and embassy in Papua New Guinea, the move is an emulation of China’s expansion in the Pacific. The move does not include aid to train officials, following the riots, despite China’s plan to send officials, advisors and equipment “to train [the Solomon Islands] police force.[xvi]” Opening the embassy will allow the U.S. to “build on U.S. efforts to place more diplomatic staff throughout the region,[xvii]” suggesting that future U.S. involvement will counter China’s police advisors.


The objective of economic engagement for China in regard to the Solomon Islands was to persuade nations into recognizing the PRC over Taiwan. Jonathan Pryke traces China’s investment in the Solomon Islands as recently as 2006, with China “providing close to U.S. $1.5 billion in foreign aid to the Pacific region[xviii]”, absent terms and conditions, with diplomatic recognition ostensibly a cavalier concern of the PRC. The Solomon Islands gains economic aid with minimal terms and conditions, while China gains extra footing in its recognition as the “One China.” Assuming China’s eventual aim is to reunify Formosa to mainland China, recognition from the Solomon Islands gets the PRC one step closer toward this goal. As more nations recognize the PRC as the “One China,” Taiwan will be at risk of losing geopolitical influence unless it eventually reunifies with mainland China. Additionally, countries will be encouraged by China’s investment in the Solomon Islands to recognize China, especially if in need of aid. Regardless of the result of more recognition, the investment in the Solomon Islands has paid off for China because it now has one more country to receive recognition from, while Taiwan has one less.


Finally, the county that benefits most from investments is the Solomon Islands, which can put countries against each other. For Pacific Island countries, this rivalry between the PRC and Taiwan “enabled the Pacific Island states to leverage their new sovereignty into aid and other benefits.[xix]” In geopolitics, the countries involved seek to gain political leverage, rather than economic. The U.S. investment is purely political in an effort to counter China. In the case of Taiwan versus the PRC, the Solomon Islands can switch its recognition, depending on which country offers the most investment. The Solomon Islands can use its partnership with the PRC as a bargaining chip for more aid form the United States. This is a tool that has been available before to independent island nations, such as the Solomon Islands. It is now coming to fruition as China stands as an alternative partner that seeks to expand its influence. As the geopolitical and recognition rivalry continues between Taiwan and the PRC, these trends will continue.


Written by JTMS Intern Cameron Whiteside


*** The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of JTMS or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. ***

[i] Biddick, Thomas V. “Diplomatic Rivalry in the South Pacific: The PRC and Taiwan.” Asian Survey, vol. 29, no. 8, 1989, pp. 800–15, https://doi.org/10.2307/2644627. Accessed 26 Apr. 2022. [ii] “China, Solomon Islands Establish Diplomatic Relations.” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 21 Sept. 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/9/21/china-solomon-islands-establish-diplomatic-relations. [iii] Zhang , Denghua. “Perceiving China’s Influence in the Pacific: The Case of Solomon Islands.” The Diplomat, 21 Oct. 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/10/perceiving-chinas-influence-in-the-pacific-the-case-of-solomon-islands/. [iv] Rampton, Roberta. “Exclusive: Pence Rebuffs Solomon Islands PM after Nation Cuts Ties with Taiwan.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 17 Sept. 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-taiwan-diplomacy-pence-exclusive/exclusive-pence-rebuffs-solomon-islands-pm-after-nation-cuts-ties-with-taiwan-idUSKBN1W22WK. [v] Needham, Kirsty. “Exclusive Solomon Islands Considers Security Cooperation with China - Official.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 24 Mar. 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/exclusive-solomon-islands-considers-security-cooperation-with-china-official-2022-03-24/. [vi] O’Brien, Patricia. “The China-Solomon Islands Security Deal Changes Everything.” The Diplomat, For The Diplomat, 9 Apr. 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/04/the-china-solomon-islands-security-deal-changes-everything/. [vii] Pamuk, Humeyra. “U.S. Plans Solomon Islands Embassy in Push to Counter China.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 12 Feb. 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/us-planning-open-embassy-solomon-islands-official-2022-02-12/. [viii] Zhuang, Yan. “Protests Rock Solomon Islands: Here’s What’s Behind the Unrest.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Nov. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/25/world/asia/solomon-islands-riot.html. [ix] Michael Martina, Simon Lewis. “Senior U.S. Officials to Visit the Solomon Islands amid China Security Concerns.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 19 Apr. 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/senior-us-officials-visit-solomon-islands-amid-china-security-concerns-2022-04-18/. [x] “Fact Sheet: Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States.” The White House, The United States Government, 11 Feb. 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/02/11/fact-sheet-indo-pacific-strategy-of-the-united-states/. [xi] Global Times. “US Steps up Moves to Woo Pacific Island Countries after Releasing Indo-Pacific Strategy.” Global Times, 13 Feb. 2022, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202202/1252147.shtml. [xii] Atkinson, Joel. “China–Taiwan Diplomatic Competition and the Pacific Islands.” The Pacific Review, vol. 23, no. 4, 2010, pp. 407-427., doi:10.1080/09512748.2010.495998. [xiii] BADER, JEFFREY. MEETING THE CHINA CHALLENGE: A STRATEGIC COMPETITOR, NOT AN ENEMY. www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Jeffrey-Bader.pdf. [xiv] Dobell, Graeme. “China and Taiwan in the South Pacific: Diplomatic Chess versus Pacific Political Rugby.” CSCSD Occasional Paper Number 1, May 2007, chl-old.anu.edu.au/publications/csds/cscsd_op1_4_chapter_1.pdf. [xv] Pamuk, Humeyra. “U.S. Plans Solomon Islands Embassy in Push to Counter China.” Yahoo!, Yahoo!, 11 Feb. 2022, https://www.yahoo.com/video/u-planning-open-embassy-solomon-035001810.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAACFL7ZGky88098-fNAwvDNVWyczZrUkqXeaGO2B9RliRNAdGuCXhf9Zls5M20FFGQAYODEyLjCHCSy00IVRQBd3CFsfp33fo-7Mwqxwjjy8JN_h2va1_GgOL7VSA1FsUWST1sm2vnz8eHtZzkwf-5yqqaW1RHxte6CccfATyujL7. [xvi] “China to Equip and Train Solomon Islands Police Force.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Dec. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/24/china-to-equip-and-train-police-in-solomon-islands-after-unrest. [xvii] “US Plans to Reopen Solomon Islands Embassy in Push to Counter China.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Feb. 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/12/us-plans-to-reopen-solomon-islands-embassy-in-push-to-counter-china. [xviii] Pryke, Jonathan. “The Risks of China’s Ambitions in the South Pacific.” Brookings, Brookings, 20 July 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-risks-of-chinas-ambitions-in-the-south-pacific/. [xix] Atkinson, Joel. “China–Taiwan Diplomatic Competition and the Pacific Islands.” The Pacific Review, vol. 23, no. 4, 2010, pp. 407–427., doi:10.1080/09512748.2010.495998.

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