Exclusive: Pence rebuffs Solomon Islands PM after nation cuts ties with Taiwan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has declined to meet with the leader of the Solomon Islands to discuss development partnerships after the Pacific island cut ties with Taiwan in favor of China this week, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday.

The Solomon Islands was the sixth country to switch allegiance to China since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in Taiwan in 2016. Self-ruled Taiwan has accused China – which claims Taiwan as its territory – of trying to meddle in its upcoming elections.

Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare had asked Pence in July for a meeting, the senior administration official told Reuters, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The meeting was to have taken place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, or afterward in Washington.

“But the decision by the Solomon Islands to change its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China has consequences. They’re hurting a historically strong relationship by doing this,” the official said.

“It’s a setback, and it’s prioritizing short-term gain with China over long-term commitment with the U.S.,” the official said.

The United States upholds what is known as the “one-China” policy, officially recognizing Beijing and not Taipei, while assisting Taiwan.

Pence and other officials in President Donald Trump’s administration have criticized China for what they call “debt-trap” lending practices to small countries, pushing them into debt. China denies those charges.

“Countries that establish closer ties to China primarily out of the hope or expectation that such a step will stimulate economic growth and infrastructure development often find themselves worse off in the long run,” the U.S. official told Reuters.

After the Solomon Islands decision, Taiwan has formal relations with only 16 countries, many of them small, less-developed nations in Central America and the Pacific.

After his July phone call with Pence, Sogavare sent him a letter, saying he was “favorably disposed” to ask his Cabinet to defer a decision on its Taiwan ties until later in the year.

Sogavare emphasized that he needed help from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan to develop infrastructure – a critical domestic issue for his government – according to a copy of the letter reviewed by Reuters.

Beijing said on Tuesday that the Solomon Islands would have unprecedented development opportunities after cutting ties with Taiwan.

The Solomons, a former British protectorate that is home to about 600,000 people, had been looking into a possible switch in ties since a general election in April.

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