Taiwan loses Nauru to China following ruling party's election victory

Supporters wave Taiwan's national flags and Taiwan People's Party (TPP) flags during an election campaign rally in Keelung on Jan 10, 2024. [AFP]

Taiwan announced that it will sever diplomatic ties with Nauru effective immediately Monday after the Pacific island nation announced its decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

In an official statement, the Nauru government said the diplomatic switch is in line with the “One China Principle,” which mandates that the only legal government representing the whole of China is the People’s Republic of China, and announced that Nauru will stop developing any official relations or official exchanges with Taiwan.

During a news conference in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, Taiwan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tien Chung-kwang said Taipei will immediately withdraw embassy staff and personnel from its technical mission in Nauru and asked the Pacific island nation to close its embassy in Taiwan.

“Since 2023, we have obtained information indicating that China has been actively reaching out to political figures in Nauru and trying to use financial aid to induce a diplomatic shift in Nauru,” Tien said during the news conference.

Tien told reporters that Nauru began to consider a diplomatic switch to China during the tenure of the country’s former president Russ Joseph Kun last October. Despite a brief period of calmness in bilateral relations after David Adeang became Nauru’s new president on October 30, 2023, Tien said Nauru continued to ask Taiwan for a huge amount of financial aid that surpassed what Taiwan would normally provide to diplomatic allies.

Tien said Nauru’s decision to establish diplomatic ties with China despite the wide range of assistance that Taiwan has provided over the years is regrettable. He also condemned China’s decision to poach another diplomatic ally from Taiwan following Taiwan’s presidential election on January 13, describing the move as intentional and an attempt to deal a blow to Taiwan’s democracy and freedom.

“At a time when democracies around the world congratulate Taiwan on the success of the election, Beijing has chosen to suppress Taiwan in such a way,” Tien said, adding that the move is a retaliation against democratic values and a blatant challenge to international order.

While Taipei urged Beijing to abandon confrontation and return to the international order, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it welcomes Nauru’s decision to break “the so-called diplomatic ties” with Taiwan.

“There is but one China in the world, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory, and the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China,” said an unnamed spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in a statement, adding that Beijing “stands ready” to work with Nauru.

The news comes only two days after Taiwan held its presidential and legislative election, during which the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP,) which favors Taiwan maintaining its sovereignty, won an unprecedented third consecutive presidential term.

Following the election, the Chinese government claimed the election outcome didn’t reflect the mainstream public opinion in Taiwan and emphasized that the result couldn’t change the fact that Taiwan is a part of China.

Some analysts say Beijing’s decision to poach Taiwan’s ally is a victory that the Chinese government can claim after it repeatedly used tough language to warn Taiwan of the possible consequence of electing the candidate from the DPP as the new president.

“[The Chinese government] needs to follow through on [their tough language] with some sort of response so this might be the first of a number of measures to come,” Amanda Hsiao, a senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group, told VOA by phone.

Since China has previously used similar moves to retaliate against Taiwan, some experts say Monday’s news is unsurprising. “Many of us saw poaching a diplomatic ally as a tool in China’s repertoire for how to punish Taiwan for another DPP victory and it’s a means that they're willing to do,” Lev Nachman, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, told VOA.

While Monday’s development leaves Taiwan with only 12 diplomatic allies, Nachman said Taipei can neutralize the impact of Beijing’s retaliation by repeating the narrative that these incidents are examples of “Beijing bullying Taiwan.”

“As long as Taiwan stays on this messaging, I still think Taiwan will come out looking stronger than Beijing,” he said, adding that the Chinese government’s attempt to poach Taiwan’s diplomatic allies will make Beijing look like a bully rather than making the DPP look weak.

Since the new government led by Taiwan’s president-elect Lai Ching-te won’t be sworn in until May 20, Hsiao from the International Crisis Group predicted that Beijing might adopt more non-military measures to put pressure on Taiwan in the coming months since Monday’s move shows that the Chinese government doesn’t want to be seen as “excessively provocative.”

“This response is to show Beijing’s strong displeasure with the election results and I think it’s possible that they might adopt more non-military responses,” she told VOA.

“They could easily remove more Taiwanese products from the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between Taipei and Beijing or fly more military aircraft on the median line. There’s a lot of things they can do,” Hsiao added.

And while the U.S. and China have been competing for influence in the Pacific region over the last few years, some experts think Nauru’s switch from Taiwan to China will have limited impact on Washington’s efforts to counter Beijing’s expansion of influence in the region.

“Nauru is one of the smallest countries in the Pacific region and since the point of U.S.-China competition in the South Pacific is about access, Nauru may not be that important in the bigger scheme of things for the U.S. strategy,” Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, told VOA by phone.

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