China is increasing its influence in Pacific Island nations. Some say that China is seeking to win over countries that have diplomatic ties with Taiwan in an effort to secure sea lanes. Japan, which advocates a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” cannot afford to sit by idle.
In the spotlight now is the possibility that the Solomon Islands will sever ties with Taiwan and forge diplomatic ties with China. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare says that he will make a final decision within the year. It is speculated that the Pacific Island nation “is weighing up Taiwan and China with the aim of obtaining more aid.”
In recent years, China has advanced its economic penetration of Pacific Island nations to a striking degree. Solomon Islanders complain that their country is developing more slowly than Fiji and other nations which have established ties with China.
Since pro-independence Tsai Ing-wen was inaugurated as the Taiwanese president, China has been stepping up its diplomatic assertiveness with an eye to isolate Taiwan. Over the past three years, five countries have cut their diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Of the remaining 17 nations that have diplomatic ties with Taiwan, six are in the Pacific. If the Solomon Islands establishes diplomatic ties with China, the impact will be immense given that Taiwan will hold its next presidential election in January 2020.
Not only Taiwan but also Australia is reacting acutely to China’s economic penetration [of the Pacific Islands]. The Australian government led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison sees strengthening the country’s ties with the Pacific Island nations as a key plank in its diplomatic policy, and it announced in June the extension of economic aid worth 250 million Australian dollars to the Solomon Islands.
The U.S. Trump administration is also taking an assertive stance with China. It is growing nervous about China’s expansion of maritime clout as the Asian nation builds “military facilities” in the South China Sea.
But Pacific Island nations continue to have deep distrust of Australian Prime Minister Morrison and U.S. President Trump because they are reluctant to address climate change. Australia was showered with criticism at the Pacific Islands Forum held in Tuvalu in mid-August.
Japan has valued its ties with Pacific Island nations through such opportunities as hosting the Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting every three year. In addition to deepening its partnerships with the U.S., Australia, and other nations to secure sea lanes, Japan needs to encourage the U.S. and Australia to tackle global environmental challenges more seriously.