Back in the Before Time of 2016, I occasionally praised Sen. Marco Rubio (F-Fla.) for his foreign policy acumen. Unlike many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, Rubio seemed genuinely interested in the topic. During a time when the GOP seemed to be dumbing itself down on foreign policy, Rubio sounded relatively knowledgeable. Sure, he was a hawk, but at least he was an informed hawk.
The Trump years have not been kind to Rubio’s reputation in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, one of those ways is that Rubio now sounds about as simple-minded on foreign policy as, you know, the president of the United States.
Consider Rubio’s approach to China. As previously noted in this space, the #OMGChina crowd has become ever louder inside the Beltway, and Rubio has become a loud part of that caucus. It is good that Rubio cares about, say, the Hong Kong protesters. It is not so good when Rubio lacks any useful ideas about how to counter Chinese influence.
This brings us to the case of the Solomon Islands, a South Pacific island chain east of Australia with a population of less than a million people. Because the Solomon Islands is recognized as a sovereign country, it has membership in a variety of international organizations, including the United Nations. More significant, the Solomon Islands had recognized Taiwan rather than the People’s Republic of China since 1983. It is one of several small island nations that Beijing and Taipei have battled over to secure diplomatic recognition.
In March, an issue in the Solomon Islands election was whether to switch its diplomatic recognition to Beijing. According to Reuters’s Charlotte Greenfield and Tom Westbrook, two-thirds of the Solomons’ exports go to the People’s Republic, which suggests an obvious logic of recognizing Beijing.
Furthermore, they reported that Taiwan’s foreign aid was a bit problematic: “Taiwan’s support of around $9 million a year is paid directly into a government account which lawmakers tap for projects in their far-flung provinces, with little oversight. ‘In the rural areas there is no tangible development,’ said Andrew Fanasia, politics reporter at the Solomon Star newspaper.” This has been an ongoing perception problem in Taiwan’s influence strategy.
This month, a task force commissioned by the new government recommended the Solomon Islands switch its recognition. The government followed the report’s recommendation and did so, leaving only 16 countries that recognize Taiwan.
Now let’s let Rubio reenter the conversation, with his Sept. 16 tweet: “And now I will begin exploring ways to cut off ties with #SolomonIslands including potentially ending financial assistance & restricting access to U.S. dollars & banking.”
I don’t know where to begin with this idiocy, but let’s start with the rather obvious point that in making this switch, the Solomon Islands was shifting its foreign policy closer to that of the United States. It might have escaped Rubio’s attention, but Washington also recognizes Beijing and not Taipei. As Daniel Larison notes in The American Conservative, “it is utter hypocrisy for an American politician to berate another government for doing what our government did forty years ago.”
To be fair, this has not stopped the Trump administration from acting annoyed about other countries switching their recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic. And from a U.S. perspective, there is some value in Taiwan not being completely isolated diplomatically.
Still, imposing sanctions on the Solomons would be an overreaction, and very likely counterproductive. Ordinarily, a small country like the Solomons would acquiesce to such pressure. Beijing, however, could act like a “black knight” and compensate the Solomons for any economic suffering U.S. sanctions would cause. The overall effect would push the Solomons even deeper into China’s orbit, much like Cuba became closer to the U.S.S.R. after the United States sanctioned Fidel Castro. Given its strategic location, this would be the outcome that the United States should avoid. It is also a much more plausible outcome if Rubio gets his sanctions.
This will probably not go anywhere because even the Trump administration has not actually imposed sanctions on other countries that have made this diplomatic switch. This is probably a case of Rubio puffing out his chest and talking tough. Still, I wish that the senator — and Trump, for that matter — would not react to everything he dislikes in the world with a threat to sanction.
Perhaps better preemptive diplomacy — statecraft that would add some carrots to the Trump administration’s stick-only diet — could be an area where Rubio should concentrate his efforts. Because his efforts to bully small island nations are worthless and weak.