Announcement stokes domestic tensions . . .
The leader of Malaita, the Solomon Islands’ largest province, said it will hold an independence referendum, possibly as early as this month. According to Premier Daniel Sudaini, the decision was prompted by Malaitans’ discontent with the central government’s decision in September 2019 to end the country’s 36-year relationship with Taiwan and formalize diplomatic ties with China. Many Malaitans protested what they characterized as forging an alliance with an autocratic country that is hostile to Christianity (many Malaitans are Christian). Some also doubt the central government’s ability or willingness to withstand Beijing’s pressure. Their concerns are not without merit; last October, another provincial government signed a deal – without consulting the local population – that would have given a Chinese company with links to the Chinese government exclusive development rights for an entire island and its surrounding area. The deal was, however, subsequently declared illegal and quashed by Solomon Islands authorities.
Corruption allegations . . .
Although analysts say the referendum is unlikely to succeed, the announcement has become the latest in a series of events that has kept the China-Taiwan issue on the front burner. In December, The Guardian broke the news that several Solomon Islands MPs were offered bribes by China and Taiwan in an attempt to influence decisions over the Solomon Islands’ diplomatic alignment. Beijing and Taipei have denied these allegations. More recently, Sudaini thumbed his nose at the central government’s China policy by seeking and accepting COVID-19 assistance from Taiwan. The action drew a public rebuke from Beijing in local media.
Deeper and broader implications . . .
According to investigative reporter Edward Cavanough, the Solomon Islands case is symptomatic of a region that is still in the final stages of de-colonization. For example, next month the French territory of New Caledonia will hold a second referendum on independence, and the West Papua region, annexed by Indonesia in 1963, has been roiled by growing calls for independence. In neighbouring Papua New Guinea, the province of Bougainville voted overwhelmingly for independence in 2019. That process, Cavanough’s reporting suggests, is creating fissures in which decisions related to diplomatic alignment can be exploited by actors, both internal and external, seeking to gain political advantage.