IT does not have to be controversial.
It does not have to be an issue that polarizes the views and positions of so many people in this country.
But the reality is that it has and continues to enrage the contending parties on the issue of Government’s diplomatic recognition of China.
Had it not been for the cooler heads in the community, the firmness of national leadership on its policy stand and the vigilance of the law enforcement agencies, Honiara’s habit of quickly resorting to civil strife to resolve critical political and socio-economic issues could have kicked in with a vengeance.
Why is it that a policy-shift favoring China, which in other circumstances and with a different country would have attracted only minimal concern - has turned into a huge nation-wide argument?
Many respectable institutions like the churches, TSI, the National Council of Women …., and many high-profile Solomon Islanders have expressed their views clearly.
Some are for, some are against and some would rather wait and see how the diplomatic ties with China would pan out, although they do regret the fact that the decision to do so would seem to have been taken in a rush.
It is clear, however, that at the heart of the controversy, the pro-Taiwan supporters have allowed themselves to believe and, in turn, have influenced their followers to accept as true the merits of their arguments.
Their main claim is that they have the democratic right and freedom to be involved in any decision to recognize China, and to stop the national Government from going down that path.
They contend that the Government must listen to the people; the Government is not acting in the best interest of the country; it is doing damage to the status quo and the integrity of the nation; it undermines the values of the country’s Christian heritage and would compromise the liberal democratic system of government that Solomon Islands so dearly love.
And, for goodness sake, the Chinese Communist Party is a communist regime, how dare the Government get SI to embrace it?
Interestingly, the Taiwan-must-stay supporters would, no sooner given a chance, then they would pull down the Government and execute a regime change.
This is not withstanding the fact that only in April the country gave the mandate to the current leaders to rule Solomon Islands according to law and the requirements of the nation’s Constitution.
But Solomon Islanders are not the only ones having strong reservations about the move to recognize the PRC, and in turn to uphold the ‘One China Principle’.
Even before the Government-appointed Taskforce has departed on a fact-finding mission to pro-Beijing Forum Island Countries, outside forces had already begun to try and derail the DCGA’s move.
News articles started to appear in the FB and the local print media about a ‘debt trap’, signaling that China would only entrap Solomon Islands with huge and burdensome debts, which, if the country could not service on a timely basis, the communist regime would simply take over the properties it helped to fund, and would eventually dominate the country.
Many Solomon Islanders and leaders have swallowed this dubious narrative hook line and sinker.
In my view, it is all propaganda.
However, after the Government went ahead and recognized Beijing, anyway, the country that was most upset with the decision is the USA.
Vice president, Mike Pence and six other Republican lawmakers came out immediately on social media and vilified Solomon Islands’ leadership and its decision.
They even contemplated for the US to cut diplomatic ties with SI.
They used hard words, indeed, against one of the most vulnerable, poor, unstable and harmless democratic nations in the Pacific, if not in the world.
Their reactions, though, have been quite astonishing, coming as they did from the lips of a super power.
What is going on?
Well, perhaps there is more to Solomon Islands’ swift recognition of the PRC than meets the eye.
Is it therefore not possible that some of the so-called ‘friendly’ countries will continue to secretly fund and assist the civil societies, youth groups, provincial leaders and other stakeholders in the country to keep attacking the Sogavare-led Government, for their own interests?
Why Taiwan Matters?
To Solomon Islands, the Republic of China is just another state that SI has had diplomatic relations with, even though it is not an independent nation-state recognized by about 198 countries (less those still with Taipei) who are members of the UN.
China would never allow Taiwan to become an independent country for two reasons:
1) historically, the island of Formosa or Taiwan was an integral part of China until the early 1890s when Japan defeated the former militarily. The Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895.
Japan then colonized the island, but when Japan was defeated in 1945, China could not retake Taiwan because the former was militarily weak and it was in the cusp of a civil war.
The question of who should take control of Taiwan Island after WW2 was settled in November 1943 at the Cairo Conference which only the US, United Kingdom and the Republic of China attended.
They decided that the island should be taken from the Japanese occupiers and given to ROC;
2) Sun Yat-Sen’s Republican Party, the Kuomintang, and the Chinese Communist Party had fought each other in a civil war on the mainland.
In 1949 the Peoples’ Liberation Army defeated the Republicans’ army.
The latter could not go anywhere else on the mainland so it fled to Taiwan under General Chiang Kai-shek.
Now that China has become a world power, it wants the island back, thus, it continues to regard Taiwan as a renegade province of China.
However, all this has not, in any way, diminished Taiwan’s ability to help Solomon Islands.
Taiwan has assisted the people of this country with important projects and programs. It has built the National Referral Hospital and the Handicraft Centre in Honiara.
It has helped in agricultural projects and medical work and has never backed away from funding the country’s socio-economic and human resource needs when called upon.
Taiwan has helped the country during its darkest hour.
And for decades it has contributed funds, for rural development purposes, to successive Governments.
Typically, such funds have been placed under the authority of individual MPs.
While this arrangement has given MPS the opportunity to transform the livelihood of the rural people, few tangible projects can be found in the provinces.
Moreover, Taiwan’s huge yearly contributions to the RCDF, have been allowed to be squandered, as such funds are rarely used for income-generating projects, job-creation or for the procurement of appropriate technologies, for example, to enhance the productive capacity of the rural people.
Taiwan’s people-to-people relation has been exemplary.
And as a land where freedom, democracy and prosperity thrive, Taiwan has acquitted its obligations well in the thirty-six years of friendship with the Solomons.
Thus, political events in recent weeks notwithstanding, the people of Solomon Islands, generally, would do well to thank the Government and people of Taiwan.
Nevertheless, in the eyes of the current political leadership, the extraordinary economic transformation of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC), from being a poor agrarian society, only about forty years ago, to being a modern economic super power today – and what this might imply for the good of this country – has convinced Solomon Islands to let go of Taiwan.
Solomon Islands sees that many other countries in the world are benefiting, in terms of trade, investment, market access and infrastructure development from their ties with China.
Moreover, when the majority of the UN members in the South Pacific, including many liberal democratic countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati and Vanuatu have diplomatic relations with Beijing – it’s only natural that Solomon Islands should switch its allegiance to PRC.
Often lost in the narratives of the Taiwan supporters in the weeks leading up to the change, however, is the fact that this country would simply be following the steps taken by its neighbors for their own good.
But this is not how western powers in our region plus the USA have viewed Solomon Islands’ action.
To them, the move has compromised their security strategic interests in the containment of alleged Chinese imperialistic intentions implied in its economic and political prowess and as demonstrated in what they regard as ‘their’ sphere of influence.
Having witnessed the island archipelagoes stretching from Indonesia to Samoa and Tonga, along the Melanesian chain of islands coming under the strong influence of China, the western powers have regarded Solomon Islands geopolitical location as crucial to their overall security calculations.
Thus, by keeping Taiwan in the country, a democratic state with little global influence, to act as a focal point and a partner in the promotion and defence of the liberal democratic order in the area, would be vital to the enhancement of their power positioning in the Pacific.
A statement attributed to Mr Sogavare and reported in a local print medium recently has made reference to how the western powers were using the presence of Taiwan in the country to carry out their secret agenda.
If the statement is true, then Taiwan, whilst still a friend of the Solomons was, all along, beholden to the biddings of its defenders in world politics, and thus been acting against Solomon Islands’ national interests.
The statement referred specifically to a Foreign Minister of a neighboring country who had bypassed the Solomon Islands Government and went directly to Taipei to kill the former’s request to train its Police Officers there.
Now that Solomon Islands has taken the bold step of breaking away from the status quo and align itself with Beijing, it has, perhaps inadvertently, derailed the big powers’ plan to keep the country as a rare foothold in the midst of pro-Beijing nations in the Pacific.
Thus, the fury still coming from outside and inside the country against the Government’s decision to switch has its basis on big power rivalry and on the fears about China and how it might affect the wellbeing of Solomon Islanders.
The Battle of Ideologies
As far as big power rivalry is concerned, island countries in the Pacific become significant only for their physical locations, their votes in the United Nations, their resources endowments and their attitude toward the liberal democratic order in the world - an order based on the expression of personal liberty, human rights, the conduct of governance according to free elections, the maintenance of democracy-supporting institutions, the rule of law and the belief in an open, unfettered capitalist economy.
Crusading for the spreading of democracy, human rights and freedom of the individual, etc. within a state, has been and continues to be the main focus of the western powers, led by the US.
Being the only super power around, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s early 1990s, USA has taken it upon itself to be the champion of the free world to promote and defend democracy and the capitalist economic system, with its corresponding multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the like.
However, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and author of the book: The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, John Mearsheimer, has this to say about the liberal democratic order,
‘It is widely believed in the West that the United States should spread liberal democracy across the world, foster an open international economy, and build institutions. This policy of remaking the world in America’s image is supposed to protect human rights, promote peace, and make the world safe for democracy. But this is not what has happened. Instead, the United States has ended up as a highly militarized state fighting wars that undermine peace, harm human rights, and threaten liberal values at home’.
The rise of China economically, politically and militarily is regarded by the US as undermining her global unipolar status and thus, she infers, could put the liberal democratic order at risk. In this view, China as a socialist and authoritarian state is permeating the world with its economic prowess; eventually, it will end up spreading its brand of communism worldwide, as well.
China, on the other hand, has refuted such claims.
Its response has been and continues to be that it is not a hegemonic power out to re-colonize and or subjugate the developing countries and others that come under its influence, but rather a power that is more interested in peaceful development, the spread of global economic prosperity and the positioning of the developing countries in a way that they would experience genuine economic transformation, which has and continues to be denied them under a Eurocentric and imperialistic economic system.
China claims it is not crusading to spread communism. Its main mission is to share its development experience with the developing countries to help them move up the development path quickly.
Although these sentiments maybe difficult to sustain going forward, the way China is relating to the world today would seem to attest to a more humane approach in economic development. Even so, as Professor Martin Jacques, the author of When China Rules The World, has hinted at, there is always the possibility of an emerging empire to dominate the world comprehensively,
‘China’s growing influence will be based on a range of different but interconnected forms of power. Of course, unquestionably the most important is its ever-expanding economic power, which is creating the conditions for its exercising much greater cultural and ideological influence - its soft power - as well as providing the wherewithal for a major increase in its military capacity’.
While China to date would seem not be using its growing global economic power to ‘influence, attract, subordinate, persuade, bully and cajole other nations’ to peddle the tenets of her ideology, as other powers have been doing for years re their own ideology - it remains to be seen whether China will continue to be a different kind of world power.
However, given its very long history as a civilization, its non-involvement in colonial expansion, its apparent non-political interference in other nations’ internal affairs and its non-participation in world affairs for hundreds of years until the early 1970s, China’s approach to embracing world challenges today could well be different and humane.
Why the Battle?
The battle between ideologies will continue to range as long as China expands globally, driven by its own brand of economic development paradigm: ‘socialism with Chinese Characteristics’.
This concept is not well understood by many observers. Briefly, what it means is that China, although having a highly centralized system of government under one-party rule, without democracy, is in fact not shaping its economy according to Marxist-Leninist communist ideas where the dictatorship of the peasants or the proletariat will emerge and a utopia of communism will replace capitalism.
Far from it. The characteristics referred to in China’s type of socialism are: state capitalism, which encourages not only free enterprises, but also State-Owned Enterprises that are closely guided by the Government.
The concept of ‘Chinese characteristics’ also covers the promotion of economic and welfare rights for all citizens, and the dependence on a regulated market economy that is subject to gradual ‘opening up’.
In the Chinese context, this means the opening of its vast domestic market to full and free competition in which all countries could buy or sell goods and services.
The robustness of the Chinese economy and the impact it is having worldwide, stems from the application of its ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ principles.
This has led the country to become the second largest capitalist economy in the world, excelling in manufactured goods for export, in all kinds of modern technologies, including AI, solar, G5 telecommunication system and, above all, in the harnessing of infrastructure development competence, in the production of appropriate machinery and equipment.
It’s the excellence of China in all areas of commerce, trade, investment, infrastructure development, etc., that has earned it the push back from a reducing number of pure capitalist societies.
The current ‘trade war’ between US and China is a result of China’s ability to have outperformed the US economy in numerous critical areas of domestic and international businesses, despite criticisms that China has done so unfairly.
But there is one project in particular in which China has no peer competitors in the West: The Belt & Road Initiative.
According to Wikipedia, the purpose of BRI is,
‘to construct a unified large market and make full use of both international and domestic markets, through cultural exchange and integration, to enhance mutual understanding and trust of member nations, ending up in an innovative pattern with capital inflows, talent pool and technology database’.
China’s leadership in the Initiative is increasingly accepted by many countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, Eurasia and the islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
It is called Belt and Road because it covers the Eurasian land mass from China all the way to South Asia, Middle East, Africa and Western Europe (its belt), while its maritime arm covers South East Asia, Latin America and the nations in the Indo-Pacific Oceans (its road).
The Initiative mainly focuses on the building of roads, highways, railroads, seaports, airports and power generating plants in partner countries.
While China lends money to participating nations to facilitate such developments or in cases where China actually buys or leases existing national assets - the whole aim is to expand the productive capacity, market expansion and access of each country through better infrastructure, so as to facilitate the flow of goods, services and technologies between China and the rest of the world.
This paradigm would seem to vindicate skeptics who claim that the project only serves China’s own interests. Of course, it would.
However, in reality BRI is providing an innovative way where win-win outcomes would in fact be possible.
A country with 1.4 billion people who are increasingly rich and are thriving in an expanding economy, despite challenges to its GDP growth – has got to be attractive to countries who might wish to take advantage of what such a colossal consumer market can offer.
On the other hand, China has to continue to feed its big population, acquire raw materials from abroad for its industries and keep its economy floating.
And how is this to be done? Of course, by way of mutual co-operation and peaceful development through the BRI.
The popularity of BRI is rising. According to www.soufangroup.com,
BRI is China’s principal foreign policy vehicle and may be the most significant geopolitical strategy of the 21st century. BRI now extends to approximately 70 countries and is increasingly folding EU-countries under its infrastructure investment umbrella.
Greece, Italy and Hungary, to name but a few EU members…, but also many Central and Eastern European, South Asian, Southeast Asian, Central Asian, West Asian and North African states, including Pacific and Indian Ocean countries - have recently joined the Initiative.
On April 29th this year, about one hundred fifty countries and multilateral institutions attended a BRI Forum held in Beijing to share experiences, solidify relations among countries that have become members, and to welcome those who might wish to join the Initiative.
President Xi Jinping assured all who attended that China remained committed to the BRI, and that as member countries start to see mutual benefits flow in as the result of the project, that China would further open up its domestic market to the world.
Peoples’ Arguments against China
The Debt Trap. This is not such a big issue; it has simply been blown out of proportion. Anyone who knows a bit about corporate finance would understand that in the world of borrowing and lending, parties to an agreement would have their eyes open to any proposed financial arrangement.
All financial lending institutions would expect proper and bankable proposals from clients, with all possible risks covered either way.
There would be terms and conditions attached to any loan. When these are breached, renegotiations on how best to amortize the loan would follow between client and bank. There is no such thing as a bank or a development partner just throwing huge amounts of money on one’s face to sink or swim with it.
Communism is Bad for Solomon Islands. Of course, Solomon Islands would not trade its current system of government for any other system. We love our democracy, freedom, free market economy, rule of law…too much to experiment with any other system of government.
The argument posed is therefore based on a naïve assumption that the DCGA, once recognizing Beijing, would somehow open the way for communist China to come in and dominate the country.
In fact, China has never tried to spread its system of government in countries with which it has diplomatic relations. Why should it be any different in regard to Solomon Islands?
China is not a Christian Country; its presence will compromise Christianity. It is interesting how one can argue this.
If Christianity is to do with believing in God or the promotion of individual spirituality, except that it also upholds the worship of Jesus Christ, then the Chinese people are no strangers to believing in God.
They are just as spiritual as Christians in their lives.
They have been exposed to the teachings of Buddha, Taoism, Confucius and Islam for most of their history.
Some of their religious values are no different from those of Christianity.
For example, ‘Pornography in China is strictly prohibited under Chinese criminal law. Those producing, disseminating or selling sexually explicit material may be sentenced to life imprisonment’, says Wikipedia.
‘Do unto others what you would like others to do unto you’, is an important saying of Jesus, but one can also find it in the Analects (Sayings) of Confucius who lived and taught at about the same time as Aristotle (380s BC) who was teaching his own brand of philosophy in Greece, including the idea of democracy.
‘Honor your father and mother that your days may be long upon the earth’, is from the Ten Commandments. But if one studies the teachings of Confucius, the family in Chinese society is a very sacred institution.
Family governance is premised on respect, loyalty and obedience among members of the family.
I think Christians should have some humility and tolerance when it comes to matters of faith, belief in God and religious values.
We want Taiwan because it is democratic. Obviously, this is a catch cry. We’ve had Taiwan, a democratic country, for 36 years and it has been found wanting.
Solomon Islands development needs are more varied, urgent and tangible than just the desire to have democracy.
Our relationship with the said democratic country has not brought practical solutions to our real development challenges.
And so, the arguments go on and on.
Where to from here?
The battle between ideologies is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. Solomon Islands will be one of the battle grounds.
Tonga, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Palau have been highlighted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his recent announcement, to receive big aid money in the near future.
Meantime, China will focus on its infrastructure and economic development strategies in the country by using the BRI concept.
Sometimes, somehow, somewhere in the Happy Isles, both the US and China will ensconce themselves to, hopefully, do what the country would request them to do.
But given their global super power statuses, this country would do well to cultivate good relations with both countries. It should not be a choice between China and the US. Solomon Islands must gain from what both of them can do for her.
This is the least we can expect.
But in a sense, given the current political situation in the country, Solomon Islands Government has to be wary of what might happen should the geopolitical rivals carve up the country into their own development enclaves.
Already divisions have surfaced. Provinces have chosen which super power they would prefer.
Malaita, with its aspiration to break away from the rest of Solomon Islands and Makira-Ulawa Provinces have chosen democracy, the US and Taiwan, and allies, to assist in their development priorities.
Choiseul, Western, Guadalcanal and Central Islands Provinces would rather have China with its experience in lifting millions of its own citizens out of poverty, and its expertise in infrastructural development, to assist them. In this, they would be in sync with the Government’s own position.
The US has promised Malaita it would develop Bina Harbor. Japan through JAICA has appointed a well-connected citizen to represent its interests in the development of Malaita.
China has not taken sides as yet. One suspects it will conform to the Government’s national development plans.
Are the above fault lines just aberrations or will they be catalysts to something more sinister, such as the dismantling of national unity?
More than at any other time in the country’s history, the Government must read the signs of the times carefully, take advantage of the national economic transformation that will come from all donor partners, and act wisely.
The time for arguments is past.
The Dragon is here to stay, much to the consternation of the Bald Eagle and its allies.
• Warren Paia is a former Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs, former adviser to four Prime Ministers over the years and has taught at two regional universities. He now lives at his tourist Retreat near Munda.