Daniel Suidani, the prime minister of Malaita – the largest province of Solomon Islands – is in hospital in Taiwan receiving treatment for a suspected brain tumor. But political influence is also under fire from the Pacific nation government for a medical evacuation that has shaken deep divisions over a 2019 decision to change diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
Suidani, who has emerged as one of the most important critics of the Solomon Islands in China since the country ended its 36-year alliance with Taiwan, arrived in Taipei on May 26 on a trip that the government he condemned as “unauthorized.”
This decision to shifting diplomatic ties to China – known locally as “the switch” – remains unpopular and is embroiled in allegations that the corrupt influence from Taiwan and China has helped shape the decision.
Solomon Islanders who oppose the change fear that an economic relationship with China will not be manageable.
Others expressed concern about Beijing’s treatment of religious minorities and its one-party system of government, which they said were in contrast to Solomon Islands ’democratic principles and broad-based Christian views.
Opposition was strongest in Malaita, where anti-China activism took hold in Auki, the provincial capital.
Since then, Suidani has pledged to reject any Chinese investment in its province, while fostering a close partnership with Taiwan by bringing it into direct conflict with Solomon Islands’ formal “One China” policy, and resulting in a growing public. bitter and bitter between him and the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare.
“Shaking hands with China”
The health of Prime Minister Suidani has deteriorated since the beginning of the year.
After it was recommended that Suidani seek treatment abroad, his senior adviser, Celsus Talifilu, went to Brisbane to arrange treatment in Australia, which was priced at A $ 121,000 ($ 92,700).
Talifilu told Al Jazeera English that the Malaitan prime minister had first approached the Sogavare government for financial assistance, where it was assumed that support for Suidani would be conditional on a public handshake between Suidani and Sogavare.
The Malaitan leader refused to entertain the idea.
“It would be like shaking hands with China,” Talifilo said, referring to Sogavare’s close relationship with Beijing.
The Sogavare government has told local media that its offers of assistance have been rejected for political reasons.
“[Premier Suidani] he can express his political views against the Government that has paid his salaries, but his personal health should be his priority rather than spying on the poor advice of his colleagues, ”he said.
Talifilu, who has personally worked with Taipei to organize the prime minister’s treatment and is traveling with Suidani, says his subsequent request for assistance from Taipei has had “strong support” from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
But Taipei has downplayed the claims.
“Prime Minister Suidani has taken the initiative to approach Taiwan in the hope of traveling to our country for medical treatment,” said Joanne Ou, spokeswoman for Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Considering that Premier Suidani is a long-term friend and a staunch supporter of Taiwan and that professional evaluation has confirmed the need for urgent medical treatment, the Taiwanese government has accepted Premier Suidani’s visit on humanitarian concerns.”
The Chinese embassy Honiara says it has “raised concerns” with the Sogavare Government over Suidani’s visit to Taiwan.
“China strongly opposes any official contact in any form between Taiwan and any officials of countries that have diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China,” it said in a statement on May 30.
Change of diplomatic tactics
Taipei’s assistance to Suidani, a leader of a rebel province with aspirations for independence and one of Beijing’s most important critics of the Solomon Islands, is the latest example of the two sides ’extensive public court.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Suidani held numerous public events celebrating the arrival of deliveries of Taiwanese aid to Malaita – aid that has not been approved by Honiara.
The expeditions began after a clandestine meeting between Talifilu and Taiwanese diplomats in Brisbane, Australia, in March last year and were often unveiled in ceremonies with prominent demonstrations of Taiwanese and Malaysian flags.
U Pacific had long been a bastion of Taiwanese support but the recognition of Beijing by the Solomon Islands is Kiribati in 2019 it was a blow to Taipei’s regional influence.
Four Pacific island nations, Palau, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu – with a combined population of just 100,000 people – are still extending full diplomatic recognition to Taipei. Taiwan is recognized by only 15 nations in the world.
Malaita, a geographically substantive province in the Solomon Islands, has a population of nearly 200,000 people.
While China has angered more than its allies, Taipei has engaged in unconventional diplomatic tactics, including creating ties with Somaliland, an unknown region of Somalia.
“China’s motive has been to reduce Taiwan’s international space,” said Sana Hashmi, on a visit to the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation.
“Amid China’s growing aggression, Taiwan could deal with more friends and countries than they thought. [Its] an ongoing engagement with Malaita suggests strengthening subnational cooperation with countries with unofficial links. ”
Hashmi believes Taiwan’s assistance to Suidani is in line with its “policy of providing humanitarian assistance without attacks” and its in-depth 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 make a vote of independence, seeking to separate from the Solomon Islands and citing his province’s opposition to Honiara’s Chinese policy as justification.
Units at risk
Meanwhile, China’s role in the Solomon Islands has continued to grow as a result of “change”. He provided significant COVID-19 assistance, including supplies of his Sinopharm vaccine.
China has courted significant media companies by donating cars and computers, two local journalists familiar with Beijing’s media assistance told Al Jazeera.
But these efforts have been undermined by suspicions of China’s intentions in the country, exacerbated by the failed efforts of a Chinese trade figure to lease a central island near Honiara, and leaks showing the finance minister Soak in negotiations with a mysterious Chinese financier for $ 100 bn loan.
Despite the Honiara-Beijing relationship approaching its third year, opposition politicians believe China’s recognition of the Solomon Islands has not yet been established.
“If I were prime minister, I would go back to the people,” said Matthew Wale, Solomon Islands’ opposition leader.
He said any future Wale Government would test the question of Honiara’s loyalty to China in a national referendum.
The office of Prime Minister Sogavare has not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Between 1998 and 2003, the Solomon Islands plunged into civil conflict, with tensions between Malaysians and other ethnic groups leading to about 200 deaths.
The conflict was brought under control only after Australia and other countries in the region intervened. The peacekeeping operation, known as the Solomon Islands Regional Assistance Mission (RAMSI), has been going on for 13 years, ending in 2017 at a cost of more than $ 700m.
As tensions continue to rise between Malaita and the National Government, some fear that post-RAMSI peace in the country will be undermined.
“I am very concerned about the unity of the country,” Wale said. “I am very concerned about this matter leading to civil strife.”