Neican: Solomon Islands, domino theory, Lithuania

1. Solomon Islands

In the Solomon Islands last week, anti-government protests broke out, with protestors burning Chinatown in the capital Honiara. The Solomon Islands Government requested help from Australia, which sent police and military personnel.

Prime Minister Sogavare blamed unspecified “foreign powers” for encouraging this civil unrest. It is unclear which foreign powers he refers to, but since he has welcomed help from Australia, then presumably, Australia is not one of them.

According to some media outlets, the primary reason for the civil unrest is the Solomon Islands government’s decision to recognise Beijing instead of Taipei as the government of China.

However, it’s extraordinary that the locals would feel so strongly about this issue. Also, why would the government request help from Australia if it has already aligned itself with China?

Characterising the Solomon Islands Government and its political leaders as “pro-China” or “anti-China” may make sense to those focusing solely on geopolitics and the US-China competition. But locals and Pacific affairs experts paint a more complex picture of the unrest. Dr Transform Aqorau wrote:

[The] protest is intertwined with the complexity of the China-Taiwan, and national-provincial government political dynamics…Solomon Islands has been drifting to self-destruction. It is one of the most aid dependent countries in the world. Significant donor support is given to its health and education sector. Yet, its ministers and senior government officials treat its people poorly, and allow them to be exploited by loggers and miners.

Senior Fellow at the Australian National University Dr Sinclair Dinnen said:

The weakness of national identity and allegiances underlies many of the country’s challenges. There has also been a lot of behind-the-scenes politicking going on to dislodge the current government, which is symptomatic of the inherently unstable kinds of coalition government that Solomon Islands has had since independence and the patrimonial politics that animates them.

In reporting events in foreign countries, media often emphasise geopolitics and foreign policy at the expense of domestic politics and social factors. But to understand what’s happening around the world, a geopolitical lens is not enough. Hearing from regional and country experts is crucial.

2. Domino theory

Surprise! The domino theory is making a comeback!!

Newsweek published an article titled Taiwan Could Be First Domino in Chinese Land Grab Across Asia quoting a US senator. Likewise, the Australian Defence Minister Dutton, in a speech last week, said, “If Taiwan is taken, surely the Senkakus are next.”

This kind of thinking is a consequence of seeing everything through the lens of US-China competition. In some popular Western narratives, non-Western countries are merely pawns in the game of power — that is, they have no agency; they’re just dominos falling on top of each other.

We often interpret events and initiatives through this lens. One recent example is the Belt and Road Initiative.

Domino theory was used during the Cold War to justify foreign interventions, including by the US and its allies in Vietnam. For Australia, it had a special appeal. The force of Communism appeared to be spreading from north to south. On a standard world map displayed on a wall, it would seem that sheer force of gravity would compel it to spread further, with Australia being the next target.

A 1966 election campaign poster. Will we see similar posters in 2022?

After the Cold War, domino theory persisted in some foreign policy circles, including among neoconservatives. In a twist, they used it to justify the invasion of Iraq (spreading democracy in the Middle East).

The recent comeback of the domino theory highlights its lasting appeal. In 1966, the party in Australia that supported the domino theory and the Vietnam War won the election against the party that opposed the war. In announcing Australia’s deployment of troops to Vietnam, the then Prime Minister Menzies said:

The takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia and all the countries of South and South East Asia. It must be seen as part of a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

3. Lithuania

China officially downgraded its diplomatic relations with Lithuania to the “chargé d’affaires” level on November 21. The downgrade came after the establishment of Taiwan’s de facto embassy – The Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania 駐立陶宛台灣代表處 – in Vilnius three days earlier. This episode highlights yet again the importance of recognition and perceptions of recognition to both Beijing and Taipei.

The naming of the representative office is at the heart of the current controversy. For most countries without formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, “Taipei 台北” is used rather than “Taiwan 台灣,” e.g., Taipei Representative Office in the Federal Republic of Germany 駐德國台北代表處.

The Taiwanese government sees the latest development as a diplomatic breakthrough. The only European jurisdiction that has formal relations with Taiwan is the Holy See. Lithuania is the first European country to allow “Taiwan” in naming Taiwan’s de facto embassy.

Likewise, Beijing takes the terminology of recognition very seriously, especially when it comes to Taiwan. In August, it recalled its ambassador to Lithuania as a warning. That act was not enough to dissuade Vilnius.

In downgrading relations with Lithuania, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated:

allow[ing] the Taiwan authorities to set up a “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania”..creates the false impression of “one China, one Taiwan” in the world…the “Representative Office” bearing the name of Taiwan, thus creating an egregious precedent in the world.

We will likely see further economic and diplomatic actions by Beijing against Lithuania. These actions would serve two purposes. First, to change Vilnius’ calculus by imposing costs. Second, as a warning against others thinking about following Lithuania’s “egregious precedent.”