Thousands of miles from their Taiwan Strait flash point, Beijing and Taipei are squaring off in another cross-strait dispute where old animosities collide with local grievances and coronavirus realpolitik.

Days before Solomon Islands switched diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China last year, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared his erstwhile partner “completely useless to us” as he went on to embrace Beijing in a process marred by corruption allegations. Taiwan responded by severing ties with the government of the South Pacific archipelago.

Now, fallout from the spat is inflaming tensions in the Solomons, which lie in a politically unstable region where China is expanding its sway. It’s also revealing how, facing a dwindling list of diplomatic partners, Taiwan is seeking new avenues of influence by engaging with subnational governments — but in doing so, is injecting one of the world’s thorniest geopolitical tussles into far-flung and often volatile local affairs.

While their trade with China far outstripped that with Taiwan, many in the Solomons were not happy about abandoning 36 years of friendship. The decision especially chafed with inhabitants of Malaita, the Solomons’ most populous region, which sits 60 miles across the Indispensable Strait from the next-most-populous island of Guadalcanal, scene of an epic World War II battle and home to the capital, Honiara. The islands share a long-running acrimony that spilled over into civil unrest that left 200 dead between 1998 and 2003.

“The peace in Solomon Islands is still very fragile,” said Clive Moore, a historian of the Solomon Islands and emeritus professor at the University of Queensland. “You only need a couple of rogue leaders and something could happen.”

Anger on the streets swelled after the Solomons government announced the China switch in September. Protesters chanting “No need China” descended on Malaita’s provincial capital, Auki. Politicians aligned with Sogavare, 65, were berated in public forums, and lawmakers alleged they were offered bribes by Taiwan and China in exchange for their support. Both governments denied any impropriety.

Much of the dissent was organized by Richard Olita, a 35-year-old former secretary of a pro-independence organization, Malaita for Democracy. In January, Olita was hired as an adviser to Daniel Suidani, the premier of Malaita. Olita says his former organization plans to hold a pro-independence rally in Auki in August.

The protests led Suidani to sign a pledge that Malaita would never engage with Beijing. He terminated licenses of businesses owned by ethnic Chinese, a key demand of Olita’s former group. The Solomon Islands government has said Suidani’s administration “faces suspension” for breaching the law.

Malaita’s anti-Beijing stance is fueled by loyalty to Taiwan, suspicions of communism, concern over Chinese debt traps, and a fear of China’s animus toward Christians. Suidani, who echoes President Trump in calling coronavirus the “Wuhan virus,” has said that China has “a global ambition to dominate the world.”

Taiwan is a self-ruled democracy, but China considers the island part of its territory and has threatened to take it by force. To isolate Taiwan, Beijing has used enticements to steadily pick off its diplomatic partners, which now number just 15. A week after the Solomon Islands switched sides, another Pacific nation, Kiribati, followed suit.

Covid diplomacy

As the coronavirus began tearing across the globe this year, Malaita’s officials saw a chance to hit back at both Beijing and the national government in Honiara. Staffed by individuals harboring improbable independence aspirations, the provincial government set about reanimating its relationship with Taipei, thumbing its nose at the national policy.

In March, officials from Malaita and Taiwan convened in Brisbane, Australia, for secret talks on coronavirus aid, according to Malaita’s government. The meeting was convened at the request of Malaita, which sought to leverage its genuine need for health assistance to reopen ties with Taiwan.

The meeting was not approved by Sogavare, who declined to be interviewed for this article, citing a police investigation. Three Taiwanese officials familiar with Taipei’s Solomon Islands policy did not dispute the Malaitan account. “We never confirm meetings between officials, nor comment on the content of the meetings,” said Joanne Ou, a Taiwanese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.

Asked whether they knew about the discussions, Australian officials responded with a general statement reiterating their “warm” relationship with the Solomons.

Soon, coronavirus aid began flowing from Taiwan to Malaita — but not to other parts of the Solomons — as the provincial administration leveraged anti-Chinese sentiment to its advantage.

The first aid consignment organized at the Brisbane meeting arrived in Auki on June 8. Suidani held a public ceremony, standing with supporters waving Taiwanese flags alongside piles of rice draped with banners that said, “Taiwan is Helping.”

The aid “rekindles the longstanding friendship between the people of Malaita province and the people of Taiwan,” Suidani told the crowd.

One day later, a second Taiwanese consignment was intercepted and seized by Solomon Islands’ federal police at the Honiara’s Henderson Airport. Sourced from Shuang Ho Hospital in Taipei, it consisted of 10,000 surgical masks, 2,600 bags of rice, thermal imaging equipment, and 20,000 bars of soap, according to a Taiwanese diplomat who facilitated the delivery. The consignment, posted via DHL, had been addressed to Olita.

In a letter leaked to local media, Solomon Islands’ attorney general said Malaita’s solicitation of Taiwan constituted an “act of defiance” of the central government that violated sedition laws. The attorney general, John Muria Jr., is considering charges against Olita, and Malaita is preparing to countersue the national government to release the aid. Olita declined to comment, citing his potential involvement in the proceedings.

Beijing took issue with the displays of Taiwanese flags, accusing Malaita’s leaders of “illegitimate, inappropriate and entirely wrong” actions that it said “hurts the national feelings of the Chinese people.” Suidani said in an interview that Sogavare’s government should tell China’s representative “not to meddle in the domestic politics of Solomon Islands.”

Malaita was not backing down. Supported by Taiwan, its officials initiated a Malaitan Lives Matter campaign, arguing that confiscating Taiwan’s coronavirus aid threatened lives.

“The seizure was unjustified and without legal basis,” said a Taiwanese diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “By politicizing anti-pandemic humanitarian assistance, [Beijing] is purposely delaying the delivery of crucial supplies that would help Solomon Islands combat covid-19.”

A struggle for influence

Medical relief during the coronavirus pandemic has been a field of soft-power competition between China and Taiwan, whose exclusion from the World Health Organization despite its success in containing the outbreak remains a sore point in Taipei and some Western capitals.

Taiwan’s efforts in Malaita also coincided with its establishment of diplomatic relations with Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia. That move earned Taipei a second African ally, after Swaziland, and demonstrated its willingness to court recognition by non-nation states with independence aspirations, in the face of China’s pressure campaign.

For its part, Malaita’s success in convincing Taiwan to deliver aid illustrates the capacity of Pacific actors to cultivate — even manipulate — foreign interests to their internal advantage.

While an independent Malaita remains unlikely, disputes in the neighborhood present potential openings for both Beijing and Taipei, especially if they result in new nations; each small Pacific state ultimately means one vote in international arenas such as United Nations bodies, where China and the United States vie for influence.

Bougainville, a nearby province of Papua New Guinea, voted overwhelmingly for independence in 2019. West Papua, a region spanning two Indonesian provinces, continues its push for sovereignty, almost 60 years since its annexation.

In the Solomon Islands, the government’s China policy has exposed Sogavare to problematic, and domestically unpopular, pressure from Beijing, said Tess Newton Cain, a Pacific analyst at Griffith University in Brisbane.

“The Chinese officials appear to be doing their best to get their wording into [Solomons] government press releases,” she said. “Sogavare has gone all in with China.”

But for now, Taiwanese aid continues to be unveiled by the Malaitan premier, who says there is “no doubt” he will maintain his relationship with Taipei despite mounting pressure.

At a public ceremony on July 8, Suidani handed 5,000 masks to his senior health official, Taiwanese flags again on display.