News fuels allegations of censorship . . .
The Solomon Islands government says it will implement a ban on Facebook, joining a small club of authoritarian governments – China, Iran, and North Korea – that also block access to the popular social media platform. The Minister of Communication and Aviation, Peter Agovaka, cited a deterioration in civic discourse, character assassinations, and abusive language against government officials as the reason for the ban. Critics within and outside the country have lambasted the decision, accusing the government of using it to shield itself from legitimate criticism. The Guardian reports that some observers believe the government’s close relationship with Beijing may have been a factor in the decision.
Suggestions that pro-Taiwan province may be a factor . . .
The Solomons’ relationship with Beijing was cemented after the former’s September 2019 general election. The decision to shift diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing was one of the most contentious issues in the campaign, with the pro-Beijing camp ultimately prevailing. But the switch provoked a fierce backlash in the country’s largest province, Malaita, which remains pro-Taiwan. Some in the government blamed Facebook for being used to incite riots and organize anti-government sentiment in the aftermath of the election. Tensions over the Taiwan vs. China issue have not subsided. In September, Malaita’s provincial government announced it will hold a referendum on independence. A Malaitan backlash is nothing new; ethnic Malaitans were one side of a violent ethnic conflict that engulfed the country in the late 1990s.
Geopolitical tug-of-war . . .
China’s interest in Pacific Island countries is partly for their geostrategic significance, and partly because Beijing hopes to lure away the last remaining hold-outs that recognize Taiwan. However, the U.S. is insinuating itself into the matter. Last month, Washington announced a C$33-million aid package to Malaita, reportedly more than 50 times the total aid it received in 2018. It would be difficult to overstate the impact of this tug-of-war dynamic. According to a recent analysis by Brookings, the Pacific Island countries’ small size, geographic remoteness, high population growth rates, and vulnerability to climate change make them especially aid-dependent and susceptible to great power competition for influence, sometimes with destabilizing effects on local politics.
- The Brookings Institution: The risks of China’s ambitions in the South Pacific
- The Diplomat: US aid pledge to pro-Taiwan Solomon Islands province raises eyebrows
- The Guardian: Solomon Islands government preparing to ban Facebook