September 17, 2019 / 11:59 PM / 2 months ago

Exclusive: Pence rebuffs Solomon Islands PM after nation cuts ties with Taiwan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has canceled plans to meet with the leader of the Solomon Islands to discuss development partnerships after the Pacific island cut ties with Taiwan in favor of China this week, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence meets with Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (not pictured) at 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, September 5, 2019. Peter Summers/Pool via REUTERS

The Solomon Islands was the sixth country to switch allegiance to China since 2016. Self-ruled Taiwan has accused China - which claims Taiwan as its territory - of trying to meddle in its upcoming elections.

Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare had asked Pence in July for a meeting, the senior administration official told Reuters, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The meeting was to have taken place this month on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, or afterward in Washington.

“But the decision by the Solomon Islands to change its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China has consequences. They’re hurting a historically strong relationship by doing this,” the official said.

“It’s a setback, and it’s prioritizing short-term gain with China over long-term commitment with the U.S.,” the official said.

The United States - which has a fraught relationship with China over trade, defense and technology issues - upholds what is known as the “one-China” policy, officially recognizing Beijing and not Taipei, while assisting Taiwan.

Washington and Beijing are embroiled in a trade war, slapping tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of each other’s goods. The United States is also pushing to restrict Chinese state-owned telecom companies over concerns about espionage - allegations rejected by China.

President Donald Trump’s administration is also considering confronting China over its detention of some 1 million Muslims in remote Xinjiang province at next week’s U.N. meeting.

Pence has criticized China for what he calls “debt-trap” lending practices to small countries, pushing them into debt and compromising their sovereignty. China denies those charges.

“Countries that establish closer ties to China primarily out of the hope or expectation that such a step will stimulate economic growth and infrastructure development often find themselves worse off in the long run,” the U.S. official told Reuters.

After the Solomon Islands decision, Taiwan has formal relations with only 16 countries, many of them small, less-developed nations in Central America and the Pacific.

The Solomons, a former British protectorate that is home to about 600,000 people, had been the largest of the Taiwan-aligned Pacific countries, with access to airfields and deepwater ports dating back to World War Two.

After his July phone call with Pence, Sogavare sent him a letter, saying he was “favorably disposed” to ask his Cabinet to defer a decision on its Taiwan ties until later in the year.

Sogavare emphasized that he needed help from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan to develop infrastructure - a critical domestic issue for his government - according to a copy of the letter reviewed by Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

“It is the one agenda that has the potential to split the cabinet and could potentially cause the government to fall,” Sogavare said in the letter.

Beijing said on Tuesday that the Solomon Islands would have unprecedented development opportunities after cutting ties with Taiwan.

China had offered $8.5 million in development funds to the Solomons ahead of its decision.

Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Peter Cooney

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