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The leader of the Solomon Islands blamed "other powers” for anti-China riots as Australian troops were deployed to help quell the unrest.

Divisions over the Pacific nation’s diplomatic recognition of China over Taiwan in 2019 was "the only issue” behind the conflict, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told Australian Broadcasting Corp. in a report published Friday. "Unfortunately, it is influenced and encouraged by other powers,” he said, adding: "I don’t want to name names, we’ll leave it there — we know who they are.”

On Friday, Solomon Islands police fired tear gas and warning shots to disperse rioters trying to reach Sogavare's private residence, reporters on the scene said. A small number of officers successfully dispersed the crowd, which had set fire to at least one building, driving it back toward the center of Honiara, which has been left smouldering after three days of violent protests against Sogavare's rule.

The spat is centered around two main islands, about 110 kilometers apart, with a history of clashing: Guadalcanal, which holds the capital Honiara, and Malaita, the most-populous island with a third of the nation’s 650,000 people. Daniel Suidani, who leads Malaita, has been a vocal critic of the decision to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of Beijing, which opened an embassy in Honiara last year.

The "very countries that are now influencing Malaita are the countries that don’t want ties with the People’s Republic of China and they are discouraging Solomon Islands to enter into diplomatic relations and to comply with international law and the United Nations resolution,” Sogavare added.

Police this week used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse about 1,000 anti-China protesters who were demanding Sogavare’s resignation in the capital of Honiara, the ABC reported, while the Solomon Islands Herald reported that protesters looted and damaged shops in the city’s Chinatown and marched to the Chinese Embassy.

Sogavare has reached out for help from Australia, which is sending about 75 members of its defense force and federal police, along with a patrol boat, on Friday to support riot control and critical infrastructure. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the security forces were meant to "calm the situation” without taking a side on "internal issues,” adding that he didn’t see evidence of external involvement in the conflict.

The conflict shows the power play between the U.S. and China is having real consequences even in unlikely, remote corners of the world previously removed from geopolitical tensions.

"Every region is now in the contest,” said Mihai Sora, a former Australian diplomat who was based in the Solomons and who now is an expert in Pacific geopolitics for the Lowy Institute research group. "Beijing has ambitions to become the regional hegemon. With sufficient local support in a Pacific country, China could potentially establish a military and security presence, which would increase its ability to project force in the Indo-Pacific.”

Over the past decade, China’s growing influence in the 14-nation Pacific Islands — whose cumulative population of just 13 million is sprawled over thousands of islands and atolls in a region stretching across 15% of the world’s surface — has worried the U.S. and its allies, particularly Australia.

It’s been two years since the Solomon Islands — one of the biggest economies in the region — recognized China and ended formal relations with Taiwan that began in 1983. Another Pacific nation, Kiribati, quickly followed suit, leaving Taiwan with just four supporters in the region.

China has reacted strongly to the violence, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying at a regular press briefing on Thursday in Beijing that "we are greatly concerned over attacks on Chinese citizens and businesses and have asked the local government to take all necessary measures to protect the safety of Chinese nationals and institutions.”

"All attempts to disrupt the normal developmental relations between China and the Solomon Islands are just futile,” he added.

Lawmakers in Washington and Canberra have warned developing countries to avoid taking Chinese loans, saying that Beijing would use the debt as geopolitical leverage. China has spent at least $1.7 billion in aid and loans to the Pacific Islands in the past decade, much of it on much-needed transport and utility infrastructure, according to Lowy Institute data.

Sora, who is from the institute, said Sogavare’s claims that geopolitical tensions were the sole reason behind the conflict were too simplistic, noting longstanding grievances between the provinces and the central government. A statement this week published by "Honiara Based Malaitans” made no mention of Taiwan while accusing Sogavare of trying to install a "new pet government” in Malaita and calling him a "useless leader.”

Still the former diplomat said that in the last two years since acknowledging Beijing over Taiwan, the country has received huge sums of money and economic support.

"The injection of funds in a small country has been hugely significant, especially compared to what it was receiving from Taiwan,” Sora said. "Honiara is awash in stories that since Beijing has taken this interest in the Solomon Islands, the money flowing to parliamentarians outside of formal development packages has increased substantially. The character of that relationship has become more brazen.”

Information from AFP-Jiji added

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