Taiwan warns Solomon Islands of China 'debt trap' in diplomatic switch

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan on Friday warned the Solomon Islands could fall into a debt trap if the Pacific nation switched diplomatic ties to China and accepted its development aid.

Houses are seen in Honiara in the Solomon Islands, June 3, 2019. AAP Image/Darren England/via REUTERS

A senior Solomons lawmaker said this week the government intends to sever diplomatic ties with Taipei and align with Beijing, which is offering $8.5 million in development funds to replace support from Taiwan.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry said such a move had left some Pacific nations saddled with debt.

“China’s expansion in the Pacific has made many countries fall into the trap of debt,” spokeswoman Joanne Ou told Reuters.

“The flashy infrastructure that China promised has caused serious damage to the local ecosystem and infringed their sovereignty,” she added.

A government-appointed task force studying the pros and cons of a change is dominated by lawmakers who support a switch to Beijing, according to two political sources with direct knowledge of the issue.

A switch would be a prize for China in its campaign to secure allies from self-ruled and democratic Taiwan, which Beijing considers a wayward Chinese province with no right to state-to-state ties.

Only 17 countries now recognize Taiwan, almost all small and impoverished nations in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

It would also deal a fresh blow to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen who is seeking re-election in January amid criticism over her handling of Beijing, as tensions rise across the strait. Tsai has lost five diplomatic allies to Beijing since she came to office in 2016.

China and Taiwan have fought a tug-of-war for diplomatic recognition in the South Pacific for decades, with some island nations switching allegiances for financial gain and in return give support in international forums like the United Nations.

The South Pacific has been a diplomatic stronghold for Taiwan, where formal ties with six of the 16 island nations make up more than a third of its total alliances.

The Solomons have recognized Taiwan since 1983 and is the largest of the Taiwan-aligned Pacific countries, with access to the airfields and deepwater ports dating back to World War Two.

Taiwan said it believed ties with the Solomons were stable.

“Representatives from the civil society mostly support maintaining the official relations with Taiwan and are doubtful toward the so-called ‘switching of ties,’” Ou said.

“We believe the Solomons government and people are alerted by China’s usual deceptive tricks, overbearing behaviors and untrustworthiness in the international society.”

China’s Foreign Ministry reiterated previous comments on the issue, saying that China is willing to have relations with all countries based on the “one China” principle, which refers to China’s stance that Taiwan and it both belong to one China.

Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, speaking at a daily news conference in Beijing, did not elaborate or refer directly to the Solomon Islands issue.

Taiwan’s official Central News Agency reported earlier this week that Solomon Islands foreign minister Jeremiah Manele was planning to visit Taipei over the weekend in a move it called an indicator of “stable relations” between the two sides.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry declined to comment on the report.

GRAPHIC: Tug of war in the Pacific -

Reporting by Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Michael Perry and Darren Schuettler