A confiscated aid shipment, a provincial leader playing by his own tactics book, and an angry Chinese embassy.
These are all ingredients in Solomon Islands' complex response to COVID-19, one of the few countries worldwide without registering a single case of coronavirus, but still suffering economically due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic.
An essential part of the confusion is the recent diplomatic change.
After 36 years of relations with Taiwan, Solomon Islands recognized China and adopted a “One China” policy in September 2019.
But Solomon Islands is a country made up of islands, and not all agreed with the decision.
Daniel Suidani, in favor of Taiwan and president of the province of Malaita – the most populated province of the Solomon Islands – has repeatedly rejected the help of the Chinese government.
And so the province has continued to be an outpost of Taiwanese influence, a fact that has grown in importance as an emboldened Taipei uses COVID-19 diplomacy to boost its international profile.
Suidani has made little effort to downplay the issue.
Certainly on June 8 Suidani increased the controversy when he released a statement praising Taiwan for sending rice, masks and medical equipment to Malaita:
Fellow Malaitans, we are in a unique and privileged position to have been assisted by a country that has stood against the might of the Wuhan virus.
Malaitanian comrades, we find ourselves in a unique and privileged situation having received the help of a country that has risen from power against the Wuhan virus.
He also despised the “One China” policy of the national government:
What we are doing today to reach out for the protection of our survival is nothing new. It looks new only because of the newly introduced frameworks and institutional set ups. However, the limitations under these frameworks must not be used to limit our ability as a people to find appropriate support in times like this.
What we are doing today to achieve the protection of our survival is nothing new. It only seems new because of the recently introduced frameworks and institutional systems. However, the limitations under these frameworks should not be used to restrict our ability as individuals to find appropriate support in times like this.
“It is observed with deep concern …”
These comments were not to go unnoticed. Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele quickly released a press release criticizing Suidani's “divisive” and “incendiary” comments:
Such a divisive statement from a Provincial Premier threatens the unity of the country at a time when we need to work together in keeping COVID-19 from entering our borders and not politicize the virus.
Minister Manele calls for respect for government’s foreign policy and urges those who continue to make provocative and inflammatory statements to stop and work towards building a strong united country.
Such a divisive statement by a provincial president threatens the country's unity at a time when we must work together to prevent COVID-19 from crossing our borders, rather than politicizing the virus.
Minister Manele calls for respect for government foreign policy, and urges all those who continue to make provocative and incendiary statements to stop and work with the prospect of building a strong and united country.
The Chinese embassy reacted furiously, describing Suidani's statement as “irresponsible”:
It is noted with deep concern that leaders of the Malaita provincial government have recently made irresponsible remarks and actions against the ‘One China’ policy adopted by the Solomon Islands national government.
The claims and actions by the Malaita provincial leaders are illegitimate, inappropriate, and entirely wrong. It breaches the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and hurts the national feelings of the Chinese people.
It is noted with deep concern that the leaders of the Malaita provincial government have recently had irresponsible comments and actions against the “One China” policy adopted by the Solomon Islands national government.
The claims and actions of the Malaita provincial leaders are illegitimate, inappropriate and totally wrong. They violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, and it damages the national sentiments of the Chinese.
“Malaita's lives matter”
But the local Malaita leader received the support of the national Parliament. Peter Kenilorea Jr., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, asked to know why the Government had not officially expressed its gratitude for the humanitarian aid provided by Taiwan. In a statement released by the SB Herald, the legislator noted:
There was not even a simple ‘thank you’ from the national government for this humanitarian assistance to one of its largest provinces. The silence on this humanitarian aid by a former diplomatic friend, who is now supposedly an integral part of our new partner, was deafening.
There was not a single “thank you” from the national government for this humanitarian support to one of its largest large provinces. The silence before such humanitarian aid from a former diplomatic friend, who now supposedly forms an integral part of our new partner, has been deafening.
There was still another scandal to come. On June 11, the Malaita Provincial Government reported that the National Police had confiscated a shipment from Taiwan containing medical resources destined for Malaita. Police said they had confiscated the shipment because it appeared suspicious. He stated that the sender's address was not correct and that the shipment was not addressed to the Malaita Provincial Government.
However, the media later announced that the country’s attorney general’s office had sent a letter notifying police that the “fact that Taiwan is reportedly sending medical resources to Malaita province is an act of defiance against government decisions ”. It also warned that the shipment could “include material that would possibly violate the Sedition Act.”
On June 24, opposition leader Matthew Wale condemned the acts of the Police and the national government:
This is inexcusable, and it only makes a mockery of our efforts to prepare our people against Covid-19 and the State of Emergency.
I, therefore, call on the government to stop dancing to Beijing’s tune and prioritize our people’s health and safety.
This is inexcusable, and only mocks our efforts to prepare our people against COVID-19 and the state of emergency.
I therefore urge the Government to stop dancing to the tune of Beijing and to prioritize the health and well-being of our people.
Since then, an online campaign has been launched with the slogan “Malaita Lives Matter, Release the COVID-19 Team” to lobby for the release of confiscated medical resources. The Malaita provincial government claimed it was preparing to take the case to court and retrieve the shipment from Taiwan.