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Solomon Islands Officials End Ties With Taiwan, Realign With China


Solomon Islands is a tiny nation, a group of islands just northeast of Australia. This week, that country made a significant decision. It broke ties with its longtime ally, Taiwan, in favor of formal diplomatic relations with mainland China. The reason...

TARCISIUS KABATAULAKA: China is, in fact, Solomon Islands’ largest export destination. And so if one were to believe that economics was going to influence political decisions, then we’ve seen it in the case of the Solomons.

GREENE: That is Tarcisius Kabataulaka. He’s a political scientist at the University of Hawaii. He’s also from Solomon Islands. We reached him on Skype. So this was a matter of pragmatism for Solomon Islands, but it also comes at some cost to Taiwan. Taiwan is now left with only 16 nations that recognize it as a sovereign nation. And I asked him how significant that is.

KABATAULAKA: It is very significant because prior to Solomon Islands terminating diplomatic relations with Taiwan, we had 17 countries - that's including the Holy See or the Vatican. Out of those 17 countries, six of them are in the Pacific Islands. So Pacific Island countries make up for 35% of Taiwan's international diplomatic relations, and so this is really significant for Taiwan. And also the other thing about it is that Solomon Islands is the largest of the Pacific Island countries that recognize Taiwan. And so it raises questions about China's ability to persuade the other countries that have much smaller and much more vulnerable economies.

GREENE: Was it a difficult decision, then, for Solomon Islands, knowing that - you know, the implication this was going to have for Taiwan, politically?

KABATAULAKA: It depends on who you talk to. I suppose for the politicians, particularly those in government, this wasn't a difficult decision. They've decided on this for a while now. And we had the general elections earlier this year. And even before the election, there were talks of switching from Taiwan to mainland China. And after the election, a lot of those who eventually formed government had talked about this. This was simply formalizing it.

However, if you talk to a lot of ordinary Solomon Islanders, it's a different story. A lot of people have grown up with this relationship with Taiwan, and so this is both a sentimental as well as a strong diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. And so for a lot of Solomon Islanders, it was a difficult decision.

GREENE: Well, I guess stepping back even more - this is a small country, but this is a decision that really plays into the larger power struggle in the Pacific between China and the United States, right?

KABATAULAKA: It does. You know, the U.S., beginning with the Obama administration in late 2011, began looking at or starting to frame its interests in the Asia-Pacific region in the form of the - what they call the Indo-Pacific and, of course, the alliance with Australia, Japan and India into what they call the Quadrilateral partners. And so this part of the world is very important to the U.S., and so, you know, this switch by Solomon Islands is, of course, you know, a huge setback for U.S. interests in the region.

GREENE: Tarcisius Kabataulaka is director of the University of Hawaii's Center for Pacific Islands Studies. He's also from Solomon Islands. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

KABATAULAKA: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "APRICITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.