(Reuters) - The civil unrest suffered by the Solomon Islands in the past week raised alarm among leaders of other Pacific island nations that rivalry between China, Taiwan and the United States risked aggravating their region's social and economic problems.
"I think what is happening in the Solomons is something we all should be paying serious attention to, because it can happen at any time," former Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Meg Taylor told a Reuters Next conference on Wednesday.
Taylor said resource exploitation, uneven wealth distribution, and unfair treatment of locals versus foreigners were all factors behind the unrest in the Solomons, while noting growing competition between the big powers for influence over some of the world's smallest nations.
During the violence, dozens of buildings were burnt down and shops looted in the Chinatown neighborhood of Honiara, the Solomons' capital. Many protesters were from Malaita province, which opposed the switch by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's government in 2019 to formally recognise China instead of Taiwan.
Malaita's premier, Daniel Suidani, has banned Chinese companies from the province, while accepting development aid from the United States.
China's efforts to win over Taiwan's friends have alarmed Washington. Pacific island nations Kiribati and the Solomon Islands were the last countries to cut ties with Taipei in September 2019, leaving Chinese-claimed Taiwan with formal diplomatic ties to just 15 countries.
"There is no doubt that what is happening is part of the superpower rivalry," former Kiribati president Anote Tong said of the unrest in the Solomons.
He said Kiribati, with a population of barely 120,000, could face similar issues to the Solomons, as there were already "expressions of discontent" when it switched ties from Taiwan to China.
"There is local feeling that the change of relations with China and kicking out Taiwan was not entirely popular with the people," Tong said.
Micronesia President David Panuelo said his government has carefully balanced relations with the United States and China to avoid being "sandwiched" in their rivalry.
"I've said to the U.S. and China they can compete on a healthy basis in the region," he told the Reuters Next conference, adding that the big powers should avoid becoming disruptive influences.
There is now heightened interest in the region from major powers, including the European Union, and while their aid is welcomed, they all expect something in return, Taylor said.
"Everybody comes with price tags," she said.
"I can see this starting to emerge now with the bases - the U.S. is now going to establish bases throughout the region."
(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)