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Taiwan loses as Solomons turns to China

Taiwan has lost its largest ally in the Pacific after the Solomon Islands confirmed it is switching diplomatic allegiance to China, with observers saying other Pacific nations may soon follow.

The switch has geopolitical significance that will be felt as far away as Washington because the Solomon Islands are located directly between Australia and the US and were the site of fierce battles during World War II.

Alex Akwai, a spokesman for Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, said the government's caucus took a poll on Monday, with 27 lawmakers voting in favour of switching allegiance to China and six abstaining. He said the Cabinet then voted unanimously in favour of the change.

Akwai said the Taiwanese Embassy in the capital, Honiara, had lowered its flag on Tuesday. Embassy staff declined to comment.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said it will close the embassy and recall all technical and medical staff stationed there.

"We sincerely regret and strongly condemn their government's decision to establish diplomatic relations with China," Tsai said.

China, meanwhile, said it welcomed the Solomon Islands into its Pacific family.

"China highly commends the decision of the Solomon Islands' government to recognise the one-China principle and sever the so-called 'diplomatic ties' with the Taiwan authorities," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

China considers Taiwan to be part of its territory and wants to bring the island back into its fold. Taiwan split from mainland China during a civil war in 1949 and set up a rival government to the victorious Communists in Beijing.

Most countries recognise Beijing today, and China has been ratcheting up diplomatic and economic pressure to woo the remaining ones since Tsai took office in 2016.

With a population of 660,000, the Solomon Islands were easily Taiwan's largest remaining ally in the Pacific. Its economy relies on agriculture, fishing and forestry, and the country has a wealth of undeveloped mineral resources.

Now only 16 countries worldwide continue to recognise Taiwan, including five small Pacific nations. Of those, the Marshall Islands and Palau have close ties with the US and are unlikely to switch allegiance anytime soon. But experts say Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu could soon switch.

US Republican Senator Marco Rubio said the US shouldn't stay silent.

"The Solomon Islands has officially become the latest nation to bow to Chinese gov't pressure and sever ties with Taiwan," Rubio tweeted.

"The US and Int'l community must push back against Beijing's bullying and efforts to isolate (hash)Taiwan."

James Batley, a researcher at the Australian National University and a former Australian high commissioner in the Solomon Islands, said the move didn't come as a surprise.

"The sense in Solomon Islands is that there are significant resources on offer here from China, and they want to move with the times and on the side of history," he said.

But he said the Solomons needs to be careful not to get into serious debt to China, particularly as it was looking to take out big loans to fund infrastructure projects including a hydro-electric dam.

He said Taiwan had promised the Solomons a new stadium for when it hosts the 2023 Pacific Games, and that the Solomons may now look instead to China for help.

© AP 2019