Daniel Suidani, premier of Malaita – the largest province in the Solomon Islands – is hospitalized in Taiwan and receives treatment for suspected brain tumor. But the influential politician is also under fire from the Pacific nation government over a medical evacuation that highlighted deep divisions over a 2019 decision to transfer diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
Suidani, who has become one of Solomon Islands’ foremost critics of China since the country ended its 36-year alliance with Taiwan, arrived in Taipei on May 26 on a trip the government condemned as “unauthorized”.
The move to move diplomatic ties with China – known locally as “the switch” – remains unpopular and is mired in claims that corrupt influence from Taiwan and China helped shape the decision .
Residents of the Solomon Islands who opposed the change feared that an economic relationship with China was unmanageable.
Others have expressed concern over Beijing’s treatment of religious minorities and its one-party system of government, which they say conflicts with Solomon Islands democratic principles and widely held Christian views.
Opposition was strongest in Malaita, where anti-Chinese activism took root in Auki, the provincial capital.
Suidani has since vowed to refuse any Chinese investment in his province, while promoting a close partnership with Taiwan, bringing it into direct conflict with the official Solomon Islands ‘one-China’ policy, and resulting in conflict. increasingly acrimonious and public between him and the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare.
“I shake hands with China”
Prime Minister Suidani’s health has deteriorated since the start of the year.
After Suidani was recommended to seek treatment abroad, her senior advisor, Celsus Talifilu, traveled to Brisbane to arrange treatment in Australia, costing A $ 121,000 ($ 92,700). .
Talifilu told Al Jazeera English that the Prime Minister of Malta first approached the Sogavare government for financial assistance, where it is alleged that support for Suidani would be conditional on a public handshake between Suidani and Sogavare.
The Malayan leader refused to support the idea.
“It would be like shaking hands with China,” said Talifilu, referring to Sogavare’s close ties with Beijing.
Sogavare’s government told local media that its offers of assistance were turned down for political reasons.
“[Premier Suidani] may voice his political views against the government that paid his salaries, but his personal health should be his priority rather than poking around in bad advice from his henchmen, ”he said.
Talifilu, who worked personally with Taipei to arrange the prime minister’s treatment and travel with Suidani, said his subsequent request for assistance in Taipei had received “strong support” from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
But Taipei played down the claims.
“Prime Minister Suidani has taken the initiative to get closer to Taiwan in the hope of going to our country for medical treatment,” said Joanne Ou, spokesperson for the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Considering that Prime Minister Suidani is a longtime friend and staunch supporter of Taiwan and that the professional assessment confirmed the need for urgent medical treatment, the Government of Taiwan accepted the visit of Prime Minister Suidani to the basis of humanitarian concerns. ”
The Chinese Embassy in Honiara said it had “raised concerns” with the Sogavare government about Suidani’s visit to Taiwan.
“China strongly opposes any official contact in any form whatsoever between Taiwan and any official from countries having diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China,” she said in a statement on May 30.
Changing diplomatic tactics
Taipei’s aid to Suidani, a leader of a rebel province with aspirations for independence and one of Beijing’s most prominent critics of the Solomon Islands, is the latest example of prolonged public patronage by both sides.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Suidani hosted numerous public events celebrating the arrival of Taiwanese aid shipments to Malaita – aid that was not approved by Honiara.
The shipments started pouring in after a clandestine meeting between Talifilu and Taiwanese diplomats in Brisbane, Australia, in March last year and were often unveiled at ceremonies with prominent displays of the Taiwanese and Malaysian flags.
The Pacific has long been a bastion of Taiwanese support, but the recognition of Beijing by the Solomon Islands and Kiribati in 2019 dealt a blow to Taipei’s regional influence.
Four Pacific island nations, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu – with a combined population of just 100,000 – still give Taipei full diplomatic recognition. Taiwan is recognized by only 15 nations in the world.
Malaita, a geographically important province of the Solomon Islands, has a population of almost 200,000.
As China poaches more and more of its allies, Taipei has engaged in unconventional diplomatic tactics, including forging ties with Somaliland, an unrecognized breakaway region of Somalia.
“China’s motive has been to reduce Taiwan’s international space,” said Sana Hashmi, visiting scholar at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation.
“Amidst China’s growing aggression, Taiwan needs more friends and like-minded countries. [Its] continued engagement with Malaita suggests enhanced subnational cooperation with countries with informal links.
Hashmi believes Taiwan’s aid to Suidani is in line with its “unconditional humanitarian aid policy” and the deepening of its relationship with Malaita suggests “President Tsai’s” willingness to engage friendly populations. ”
Taiwan’s engagement with Malaita coincided with the growth of Malaita’s separatist aspirations. In 2020, Prime Minister Suidani announced that Malaita would conduct an independence vote, seeking to separate from the Solomon Islands and citing his province’s opposition to China’s Honiara policy as justification.
Unit in danger
Meanwhile, China’s role in the Solomon Islands has grown steadily since “the change”. It has provided significant assistance to COVID-19, including supplies of its Sinopharm vaccine.
China has wooed major media companies by giving them cars and computers, two local reporters familiar with Beijing’s media aid told Al Jazeera.
But those efforts have been undermined by suspicion about China’s intentions in the country, exacerbated by a Chinese businessman’s unsuccessful efforts to rent a centrally located island near Honiara, and leaks showing the Minister of Finances of Sogavare in negotiations with a mysterious Chinese financier for an amount of $ 100. loan of billions.
Although the Honiara-Beijing relationship is approaching its third year, opposition politicians believe the Solomon Islands’ recognition of China is yet to be settled.
“If I were Prime Minister, I would go back to the people,” said Matthew Wale, Leader of the Solomon Islands Opposition.
He said any future Wales government would test the issue of Honiara’s allegiance to China in a national referendum.
Prime Minister Sogavare’s office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Between 1998 and 2003, the Solomon Islands descended into civil conflict, with tensions between Malaitans and other ethnic groups leading to an estimated 200 deaths.
The conflict was brought under control only after Australia and other countries in the region intervened. The peacekeeping operation, known as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), ran for 13 years, concluding in 2017 at a cost of more than $700m.
As tensions continue to escalate between Malaita and the National Government, some fear the post-RAMSI peace in the country is being undermined.
“I am extremely concerned about the unity of the country”, Wale said. “I am extremely concerned about this matter leading to civil strife”.