Daniel Suidani, the prime minister of Malaita, the largest province in the Solomon Islands, is in hospital in Taiwan receiving treatment for a suspected brain tumor. But the influential politician is also under fire from the Pacific nation government for a medical evacuation that has highlighted the deep divisions of a 2019 decision to change diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
Suidani, who has become one of the most prominent Chinese critics in the Solomon Islands since the country ended its 36-year alliance with Taiwan, arrived in Taipei on May 26 on a trip the government has condemned as to “unauthorized”.
This decision change diplomatic ties with China – known locally as “the switch” – remains unpopular and is mired in allegations that the corrupt influence of Taiwan and China helped shape the decision.
The people of Solomon Island, who opposed the change, feared that an economic relationship with China would not be manageable.
Others expressed concern about Beijing’s treatment of religious minorities and its one-party system of government, which they said came into conflict with Solomon Islands’ democratic principles and broad Christian views.
Opposition was strongest in Malaita, where anti-China activism has prevailed in Auki, the provincial capital.
Since then, Suidani has pledged to deny any Chinese investment in his province, while fostering a close partnership with Taiwan, which led to a direct conflict with the formal policy of the “One China” of the Solomon Islands and which translated into a public and increasingly bitter interest between him and the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare.
“Giving a hand to China”
The health of Prime Minister Suidani has deteriorated since the beginning of the year.
After Suidani was recommended to seek treatment abroad, his top adviser, Celsus Talifilu, flew to Brisbane to arrange treatment in Australia, which was priced at A $ 121,000 ($ 92,700).
Talifilu told Al Jazeera English that the Prime Minister of Malaita first addressed the Sogavare government for financial aid, where it is said that support for Suidani would be conditional on a public handshake between Suidani and Sogavare.
The Malaysian leader refused to entertain the idea.
“It would be like shaking hands with China,” Talifilu said, referring to Sogavare’s close relationship with Beijing.
The Sogavare government told local media that its offers of assistance were rejected for political reasons.
“[Premier Suidani] he can express his political views against the government that paid him his salaries, but his personal health should be his priority instead of squinting at the poor advice of his henchmen, ”he said.
Talifilu, who personally worked with Taipei to organize the prime minister’s treatment and travels with Suidani, says his subsequent request for assistance from Taipei had “strong support” from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
But Taipei has downplayed the claims.
“Prime Minister Suidani took the initiative to approach Taiwan in the hope of traveling to our country to receive medical treatment,” said Joanne Ou, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry.
“Given that Prime Minister 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 agreed to visit Prime Minister Suidani for reasons of humanitarian concern “.
Honiara’s Chinese embassy says it has “worried” the Sogavare government about Suidani’s visit to Taiwan.
“China strongly opposes any official contact in any way between Taiwan and any official from 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 rebellious province with aspirations for independence and one of Beijing’s most notable criticisms of the Solomon Islands, is the latest example of the expansion of the two parties ’public festivities.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Suidani held numerous public events celebrating the arrival of Taiwanese aid slogans to Malaita, aid that was not approved by Honiara.
Shipments began to flow after a clandestine meeting between Talifilu and Taiwanese diplomats in Brisbane, Australia, in March last year and have often been presented at ceremonies with prominent displays of Taiwanese and Malay flags.
He Pacific had long been a bastion of Taiwanese support but the recognition of Beijing by the Solomon Islands and Kiribati 2019 was a blow to Taipei’s regional influence.
Four Pacific Island countries, 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 countries worldwide.
Malaita, a geographically important province in the Solomon Islands, has a population of nearly 200,000.
As China pursues more of its allies, Taipei has engaged in unconventional diplomatic tactics, including those that establish links with Somaliland, an unrecognized pro-independence region of Somalia.
“China’s motive has been to shrink Taiwan’s international space,” said Sana Hashmi, a visiting fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation.
“Amid increasing China’s aggression, Taiwan could do so with more friends and countries with similar ideas. [Its] the continued commitment to Malaita hints at strengthening subnational cooperation with countries with unofficial ties. “
Hashmi believes Taiwan’s assistance to Suidani is consistent with its “connectionless humanitarian aid policy” and its deeper relationship with Malaita suggests President Tsai’s “willingness to engage friendly populations.”
Taiwan’s commitment to Malaita has coincided with the growth of Malaita’s separatist aspirations. In 2020, Prime Minister Suidani announced that Malaita would hold an independence vote, trying to secede from the Solomon Islands and citing his province’s opposition to Honiara’s Chinese policy as justification.
Unit at risk
Meanwhile, China’s role in the Solomon Islands has continued to grow since the “change.” He has provided significant COVID-19 assistance, including supplies for his Sinopharm vaccine.
China has courted major media companies by giving them 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 business figure to lease an island in central Honiara, and leaks showing Sogavare’s finance minister in negotiations with a mysterious Chinese financier for $ 100. loan bn.
Although the Honiara-Beijing relationship is approaching its third year, opposition politicians believe the recognition of China by the Solomon Islands has not yet been resolved.
“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 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 fell into a civil conflict, with tensions between Malays and other ethnic groups killing approximately 200 people.
The conflict was brought under control by Australia and other countries in the region. The peacekeeping operation, known as the Solomon Islands Regional Assistance Mission (RAMSI), lasted 13 years and ended 2017 at a cost of more than $ 700 million.
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 issue leading to civil strife.”