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Taiwan’s old allies become new ‘strategic chokepoints’ between US-China

Beijing’s gains in Solomon Islands and Panama has US worried

Map showing the Panama Canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. (Twitter, Ian Turton photo)

Map showing the Panama Canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. (Twitter, Ian Turton photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Both the Solomon Islands and Panama, two of Taiwan’s former allies, are fast becoming geopolitical hotspots as competition for influence between the U.S. and China heats up in the Pacific.

A new battle over “strategic chokepoints” is emerging between Washington and Beijing, that not only includes the Solomons and Panama, but also the Argentinian port of Ushuaia, which sits at the southernmost point of South America and serves as a gateway to Antarctica, according to a Nikkei report.

The U.S. has recently tried to counter a proposed security deal between China and the Solomon Islands. In visiting the capital Honiara, Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific coordinator on the U.S. National Security Council, told Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare that if the agreement leads to a permanent Chinese military facility at the Pacific island nation, "the United States would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly.”

On September 16, 2019, the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China allegedly in exchange for US$500 million (NT$15.4 billion) in aid from Beijing. Just days earlier, Sogavare told an Australian academic that Taiwan “is completely useless to us.”

Earlier this month, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) expressed concern over the signing of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, saying it threatens regional security. Officials from democracies throughout the region, including Australia, the U.S., and Japan have all flown in to the Solomons to hold emergency meetings with its government on the issue.

On Sunday (April 24), Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a Chinese naval base would be a "red line" for his country. "This is a shared concern, not just Australia. This is Australia and regional governments, particularly places like Fiji and Papua New Guinea," Morrison added.

"We won't be having Chinese military naval bases in our region, on our doorstep," he asserted.

The other potential chokepoint is Panama, which cut ties with Taiwan in 2017. The number of large Chinese companies operating there has grown in the years since to more than 40 today, including entities subject to U.S. sanctions like Huawei and ZTE as well as resource companies like Baowu Steel Group.

Chinese companies are now at both ends of the Panama Canal, the critical shipping passage that connects the world’s two largest oceans. China-based Landbridge Group has control of Margarita Island, the largest port on the Atlantic side, while on the Pacific side, China Construction Americas has constructed the Amador Convention Center through Chinese loans.

Chinese companies are continuing to bid on more projects at both ends of the Panama Canal, Army Gen. Laura Richardson, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, told Congress recently.