PART TWO: CHINA, AUSTRALIA, USA, PNG – implications of Solomon Islands Decision to Recognize CHINA.
This is part two of three parts series analysing the decision by Solomon Islands to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan after 36 years and recognizing China. This part focuses on the potential implications for Solomon Island’s decision, drawing on experiences in the Pacific region, specifically PNG. To read the analysis on why Solomon Islands switched to China, go to the following sites:
Let’s begin with China. What are the benefits of Solomon Islands switching allegiance to China? As Solomon Islands was assessing its relationship with Taiwan, China promised a $US500 million (AUD $730 million) financial aid by Beijing, far surpassing the financial support offered by Taiwan, according to ABC. Taiwan on the other hand, promised $8.5 million for the Solomon Islands for the period 2019 to 2020. This is just 1.7% of what China promised (Taiwan would get 59 times more money from China than that which was promised by Taiwan). Furthermore, $500 is half of Solomon Islands GDP. China is committing to give Solomon Islands funds that constitute half its GDP, which stood at $1. 3 billion in 2017.
This $500 million money is part of the Belt & Road Initiative. By 2027, China will have spent between $1.2 – $1.3 trillion to about 152 countries. China is moving big. Solomon Islands not the first, countries which recognized Taiwan in the past are switching alliances. Read more about BRI on Part One – see link above.
The downside to this is that, these funds are actually loans (low-interest loans) that Solomon Islands will have to repay. What happens if Solomon does not repay? Read what happened to Sri Lanka in the Part One. It already started. Solomon Island has been pressured to switch to China, this is just the beginning.
Chinese officials released this statement: “China highly commends the decision of the Solomon Islands’ government to recognize the one-China principle and sever the so-called ‘diplomatic ties’ with the Taiwan authorities,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said (ABC).
Second, lets look at Australia’s response: Australia is involved in what kids on the streets of Port Moresby call “catchim late bus.” When Scott Morrison visited Solomon Islands this year, it was 10 years after Kevin Rudd visited in 2008. A lot can happen in 10 years – Chinese has stepped up before Australia though of stepping up. Morrison was set to announce a $250m grants program for the Solomon Islands and an easier path for islanders to get work in Australia. This amount is half of Chinese $500 million promised by China.
The good news for Solomon Islands is, $250 million from Australia is a grant – it does not have to repay. This is an infrastructure program that will last for over 10 years. In addition, Australia commits $2.7m over three years to help islanders considering work opportunities in Australia to cover their upfront costs such as passports.
Why is this a “late-bus’? Well, Australia has never been interested in directly assisting in building infrastructures in the Pacific. Whenever Australia got involved, it was through multilateral assistance: contributing to ADB, World Bank etc infrastructure programs. Now with Chinese investments in the infrastructure sector, Australia is now taking a more direct approach.
What about the US? The first bad news is that the planned meeting between US Vice-President Mike Pence and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare later this month has been cancelled after Washington said it was “disappointed” by the Pacific nation cutting diplomatic ties with Taipei to recognise Beijing, according to South China Post. It is not clear how much in monetary terms US spends on Solomon Islands. According to the U.S. State Department, Us intervenes “in improving regional stability, promoting democracy and human rights, combating trafficking in persons, responding to climate change, increasing trade, and promoting sustainable economic development”.
Some in the US are calling for the government to stop assisting Solomon Islands. US Senator, Sen. Marco Rubio, has taken to Twitter to say these words:
“I will begin exploring ways to cut off ties with Solomon Islands including potentially ending financial assistance and restricting access to U.S. dollars and banking.”
US entrusts Australia to take care of the Pacific.
PNG CASE STUDY
NOW, what does all these mean for Solomon Islands? Will US suspend its help to Solomon Islands? What will Australia do?
Let’s see how they responded to PNG: PNG had diplomatic ties with China since independence, except Bill Skates brief affair with love Taiwan in the late 1990s. Since then, China has been increasing its presence gradually in PNG. Since mid-2018, BRI had 3 main projects in PNG:
1. $3.5 million road projects, using Chinese companies to work on road projects
2. $330 million agricultural park where PNG government signed 99-year land-use rights transfer for 400 hectares in Eastern Highlands in May 2018
3. $32 million water supply in Goroka – feasibility studies in 2017, which will also include turbines to provide electricity.
According to China Morning Post, PNG owes China $1.9 billion in “concessional loans.” According to 2018 PNG National Budget, PNG’s debt to China is about $588 million and compromises about 23.7% of PNG’s total external debt.
Other thing that is of interest is that Huawei was contracted to build underwater cables connecting 14 maritime cables. Huawei is a Chinese company.
So what was the response of Australia & US? APEC 2018 has brought all the powers interested in PNG to PNG. PNGeans will remember what happened next for some time. Mike Pence accused China of debt-book diplomacy, and warned the small Pacific Island countries. Australia, NZ and Japan were right behind US. China stressed its mutual benefit arrangements and “no hidden agendas” assistance to the Pacific (Chinese officials stormed the APEC building to get hold of relevant PNG officials).
But at the END OF THE DAY, Australia, NZ, Japan & US signed the Electrification Partnership with PNG with the aims to provide power to 70 per cent of the country’s population by 2030. Currently, only 13 per cent of PNG’s population has reliable access to electricity. All these would cost a total of US$1.7 billion. Australia would begin by investing Australian $25 million in the first year.
Furthermore, in response to Huawei presence in PNG, Australia has started building the internet cable linking Port Moresby to Sydney. When completed this year, it will provide one of the fastest internet speed in the region.
So what is the message: After protesting and reprimanding, the Western countries will come around to investing in the Pacific. They cannot stand by and watch China take over the Pacific.
Should the Pacific Islands therefore embrace China, in the hope of getting the West involved? That’s a bad idea. When these countries are trapped in debt, Australia & US, NZ & Japan will not repay the debt. The little island countries will.
Thread with care.
The final part will look at what will happened to countries that already recognized China, and see where Solomon Islands is headed now.
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