Reuters is reporting that on Wednesday, 1,500 people looted and burned Chinese-owned buildings in Honiara, the capital city of the Solomon Islands. The ostensible reason: a widespread perception that the newly elected prime minister, Snyder Rini, is beholden to Taiwanese money.
Taiwan has long given the Solomon Islands millions of dollars of aid as part of its ongoing "checkbook diplomacy" rivalry with mainland China, but one local politician has charged that much of that aid comes in the form of under-the-table payoffs to government officials and legislators. The Taiwanese ambassador to the Solomons is denying the accusations, but there's little doubt that the nation's leaders have been living off Taiwanese largesse for decades.
Only 25 nations, worldwide, still have formal relations with Taiwan. But diplomatically speaking, the South Pacific is the world's most unstable region for China and Taiwan. Six of the 14 members of the Pacific Islands Forum officially recognize Taiwan; the other eight recognize China. But they've been known to switch sides on a dime if someone offers a better deal. Kiribati, for example, used to recognize mainland China, but now recognizes Taiwan.
For Taiwan, the struggle to hold on to its few remaining bought-and-paid-for friends is a desperate attempt to maintain "face" on the world stage as it stokes its infinitesimal hopes of rejoining the United Nations. But for mainland China, the stakes are different. The global balance of power in the Pacific is beginning to shift.
According to one analysis, the United States is gradually withdrawing its once dominant presence in the South Pacific. "In the 1990s Washington closed its U.S. Information Agency offices and its USAID (United States Agency for International Development) Regional Development Office and ended the Fulbright study exchange program in the region. The number of Peace Corps missions in the South Pacific has been halved since 1995," writes Tamara Renee Shie, a specialist in East Asian security issues. Meanwhile, China is flexing its new muscles, seeking access to mining resources in Papua New Guinea and fisheries elsewhere across the South Pacific.
When I lived in Taiwan in the 1980s, it was commonplace to hear people say "The 21st century will belong to China." China's increasing clout and economic presence in the South Pacific is proof that their grandiosity was not so farfetched. But that adds a whole separate angle from which to view the violence in the Solomons. According to the Taiwanese ambassador, the businesses and homes destroyed in the rioting belonged to immigrants from mainland China, not Taiwan, raising uncomfortable memories of ethnic violence against overseas Chinese communities in Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia that have little to do with the niceties of who is formally recognizing who. People obviously have a right to be upset if Taiwanese "dirty money" is buying off corrupt legislators in the Solomons. But the more pertinent motivation that is impelling people to violence may be the fear of being absorbed into a new Chinese hegemony, which is one reason why the sound of rioting in the Solomons is no doubt echoing all over Asia.