Part ONE: Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), Debtbook Diplomacy, Solomon Islands
This is the first of three part articles which will analyze Chinese presence in the Pacific. This week, Solomon Islands switched allegiance from Taiwan China, reducing the number of countries supporting Taiwan in the Pacific from 6 to 5. But Solomons is not the first country to do so. Countries supporting Taiwan has been decreasing. Last year, El Salvador in Central America, Burkina Faso in West Africa and the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean did the same. These series of articles will analyze the motivations for such switches, the implications (+&-), and potential response from the West and their allies. The analysis will also cover PNG. All these switches can be tied to a Chinese initiative called the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).
Belt & Road Initiative (BRI)
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also referred to as the New Silk Road is a global development strategy adopted by the Chinese government involving infrastructure development and investments, which intends to include 152 countries and international organizations in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas. This initiative was started in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The Belt component covers road infrastructure that China intends to build from China across Asia to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It roughly follows the trade route that medieval businessmen in caravans used to trade with China, coming from Africa and the Middle East through Asia to China. Under the Han Dynasty of 206 BC to 220 AD, a flourishing trade emerged along these same routes, until the Christian Crusaders and Mongols disrupted it.
The Road component covers maritime trading routes linking the maritime trading ports from China, to Southeast Asia, to the Middle East and Africa. It is the most ambitious infrastructure project ever attempted in by mankind, and China intends to pay for it all… we’ll through loans that recipient countries have to repay.
So who funds these roads and maritime infrastructures?
China uses it’s own money. China gives what it claims as “low interest loans” for countries participating in the BRI to built these infrastructures as opposed to aid grants. China intends to give billions of dollars to about 152 countries that are planned to be included in this network, but here is the catch 22, it’s given as a loan that these countries have to repay. By May of 2019, China had already spent $200 billion, and Morgan Stanley estimates that China will spend $1.2 – $1.3 trillion by 2027.
To date, 60 countries, which account for two-thirds of the world’s population have either signed up to the BRI project or have shown interest.
Why are countries interested in BRI?
Developing countries are drawn towards these infrastructure loans for two reasons: first, it goes to build infrastructures which small poor countries cannot build themselves. And second, the flexible, less transparent nature of Chinese loans appeal to countries where transparency and accountability is weak. Loans from Western countries and institutions come with strong accountability and transparency mechanisms.
Debt book diplomacy
There are many who think BRI is just another initiative of the Chinese government to extend its geostrategic position in the world. This thinking is now called debt-book diplomacy. Basically, China is accused of giving “low interest loans” to poor countries who do not have the capacity to repay, and when these countries default on their repayments, China chancels the debts and takes over strategic locations in these countries as a payment for the debt. For instance, Sri Lanka got $13 billion to build Hambantota Port. By 2018 Sri Lanka’s revenues was $14 billion. With these revenues it could not repay it’s $13 billion loans, so they asked China to reschedule the repayment, but China insisted on long term lease of the port for 99 years in exchange for the forgiveness of the debt. Now, China is into its second year of owning the port, 98 years to go before Sri Lanka gets it back.
When China is not taking over ports like in Sri Lanka, it goes for other geopolitical advantages such as trapping Solomon Islands to drop its diplomatic relations with Taiwan and formally switch to China with promises of constituency funding.
Now that you have an understanding of why nations would prefer Chinese funds, and the debates surrounding it, let’s look at why Solomon Islands decided to break its 36-year recognition of Taiwan to recognize to accept Chinese position.
Solomon Islands Choose China
There are only 17 countries left in the world that recognizes Taiwan as an independent nation, and 6 of those nations are in the Pacific. Among the six nations in the Pacific, Solomon Island is the largest with a population of 660, 000. Now that Solomon Islands has broken diplomatic relations with Taiwan to recognize China, there are only 5 countries left in the Pacific, which recognizes Taiwan as an independent nation.
Basically, Mainland China and Taiwan issue goes back to 1949 when, after a Civil War, the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) fled to Taiwan, and the Chinese Communist Party took control of the mainland. For years after that these two parties claimed to be legitimate rulers of both Taiwan and Mainland China. Taiwan has over the years scaled down this claim and instead decided to position itself as an independent nation. China on the other hand, regards Taiwan as part of Mainland China.
To be able to access these BRI funds, Solomon Islands had to choose China over Taiwan. This is despite the fact that Taiwan promised $8.5 million dollars for the Solomon Islands for the period 2019 to 2020. $8.5 million was less than the amount China would give. How much China promises/promised is unclear, but Chinese officials promised to bankroll funds for Solomon Islands if the Pacific Island country switched allegiance.
A taskforce was set up to assess the Solomon Island-Taiwan relationship in April after Sogovare returned as the PM. Their recommendation was for Solomon Islands to switch to China. The parliament and cabinet voted to recognize China, ending their 36 years diplomatic relationship with Taiwan which started in 1983.
Solomon Islands is not the only country that switched to recognizing China, last year, El Salvador in Central America, Burkina Faso in West Africa and the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean switched allegiance to Beijing.
Did Solomon Islands make the right decision? What are the possible implications? These will be covered in the next article, drawing on PNG and other countries experiences in dealing with China.
To read more series as they are published –
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