Testing Taiwan’s patience—Round 2

It could leave a $150m hole in government’s budget

By Alfred Sasako

February 2013

Solomon Islands
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It was around 2002/2003— when Solomon Islands was in the middle of a bloody and costly ethnic crisis, engulfing the nation and was tearing it apart.

So much so that for safety reasons, donors represented in Honiara at the time either scaled down their activities or closed their doors altogether.

Taiwan, otherwise known as the Republic of China, on the other hand, did not. In fact, it was the only donor which kept its Honiara embassy doors wide open throughout. As a reward for being a true friend in the time of crisis, Solomon Islands decided to reciprocate Taiwan’s kindness in kind by opening its own resident embassy in Taipei.

Then Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare dispatched his foreign minister, Danny Philip, to Taiwan to officially open the Embassy. ISLANDS BUSINESS has independently confirmed that while in transit in Brisbane, Philip received a telegram from the Office of the Prime Minister in Honiara, directing him to abort his Taipei trip.

Instead, he was directed to travel to Hong Kong, where a retired army general from Thailand with close connection with Beijing, would meet him. They were to discuss details of a deal which would help hasten Solomon Islands’ intention to switch diplomatic relations.

Obediently, Philip travelled to Hong Kong. Unbeknown to him then was that by travelling to Hong Kong as he did, the writing was on the wall for his ministerial career.

As Taiwan became aware of what was happening, its reaction was swift.

Instruction from Taipei was for all embassy staff to be on stand-by, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. The diplomatic relations between Solomon Islands and Taiwan was coming undone.

To contain the unfolding diplomatic stouch, Sogavare was just as swift in his action. First, the Office of the Prime Minister maintained that in going to Hong Kong instead of Taipei, Philip “acted alone”.

Philip was dismissed even before he arrived back in Honiara, let alone had an opportunity to brief cabinet on his meetings with the Thai general and others involved in the deal with mainland China.

Subsequently, Sogavare bowed to Taiwan’s demand that he travel to Taipei to offer his apology to the President in his capacity as Prime Minister.

He was later accused of striking a deal with Taiwan, which agreed to rent his $3 million home at Lungga so that Taiwanese doctors could stay there and help pay off his loan through the rentals.

While Sogavare’s dealing with mainland China was secretive, incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo was doing it openly.

On July 19 last year for example, cabinet approved the appointment of three Chinese nationals to represent Solomon Islands’ commerce and investment interests “in China, Macau, Hong Kong and Asia”.

Joe Wong and two others including a woman were formally invited to Honiara, where the title of Commissioner for Commerce and Investment in China, Macau, Hong Kong and Asia was conferred on him. His two business partners were appointed deputy commissioners.

Oddly enough, but perhaps designed to appease any dire consequences from Taiwan, the invitation was issued by the Ministry of Commerce, Immigration and Labour, instead of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Wong’s delegation arrived in Honiara in August. It was met at the VIP Lounge at Honiara Airport by none other than Deputy Prime Minister Manasseh Maelanga, as well as a number of other cabinet ministers.

Later, Wong’s group was given unlimited access to all government facilities, including its sensitive patrol boat base where photographs of the Australian-supplied boats were taken.

The Australian High Commission building, opposite King Solomon Hotel, was also photographed.

Both Prime Minister Lilo and his deputy, hosted Wong’s delegation at separate formal dinners in Honiara. At the dinner hosted by the Prime Minister, members of the diplomatic corps resident in Honiara were invited except Taiwan.

What is not clear is whether Wong represents the government in Beijing. What seems to be clear is that Wong is actually a timber merchant who is interested in Solomon Islands’ exotic timber species called tubi or black ebony, which is only found on Isabel and Choiseul Provinces. Tubi is prohibited from export.

But it seems Wong had found a way around it. Working with government officials, Wong’s company called China Jin Bang Investment Co. Ltd (CJB) had been using the Ministry of Environment to export tubi since 2011. The export was done under the pretext of research.

According to documents obtained by ISLANDS BUSINESS, CJB exported 10 containers of tubi in July last year alone. These exports, worth tens of millions of dollars, were signed off by the Director of Environment in the Ministry of Environment, instead of the Ministry of Forests and Research, which is responsible for issuing export permits.

Insiders say Wong’s appointment as commerce and investment commissioner was merely a smokescreen for exporting the prohibited tubi species.

“If there’s anyone to benefit from his appointment, it is the politicians. They hammered out the deal in private so we don’t know what is involved. It does seem Wong was appointed to look after the politicians through the proceeds from the sale of tubi,” one frustrated official said.

One question that has baffled officials is that the website for Wong’s company, China Jin Bang Investment Co. Ltd—the website which was used to display official letters from the Solomon Islands Government and photographs of meeting with PM Lilo and other ministers—have disappeared from the internet.

Of equal importance is how Taiwan would react to this latest testing of its patience with Solomon Islands. Up until now, the Taiwanese Government has been quiet. It is quite possible they may be working the system on the diplomatic level. Whether Solomon Islands has taken Taiwan’s generosity too far is anyone’s guess.

Should Taipei decide to retaliate, it could leave a $150 million gaping hole in the government’s recurrent and development budgets this year.

Politicians will be among the first to feel the pinch as they would have no money to hand out.

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