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Tuvalu could be next to switch recognition from Taiwan to China

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When Tuvalu’s new government gathers for the first time in the coming days, legislators in the tiny island nation will make two decisions whose effects will ripple across the Pacific, all the way to Washington.

First, the 16 lawmakers will decide which of them will lead the nation of 11,000 people. Then they’ll turn their attention to an even bigger issue: What to do about China?

Tuvalu is one of only three Pacific Island nations that still recognize Taiwan, following Nauru’s diplomatic swing to China last month But that could change following last week’s election, when Tuvalu’s pro-Taiwan prime minister surprisingly lost his seat.

Seve Paeniu, the more pro-China finance minister, was not only reelected but also has emerged as one of the top contenders to become prime minister.

Paeniu told The Washington Post he was open to recognizing China — a move that would leave the self-governing island of Taiwan with just two allies in the Pacific — Palau and the Marshall Islands — and fewer than a dozen worldwide.

“As far as I am concerned, it boils down to whichever country … offers the greatest support to achieving Tuvalu’s development priorities and aspirations,” Paeniu said. “The whole relationship will need to be reviewed and assessed carefully before arriving at an informed decision on the switch.”

As China vies with the United States for power and influence in the Pacific, it has tirelessly tried to pry allies away from Taiwan by many means — chief among them, money.

It has offered much-needed funds to struggling island nations like Nauru, and allegedly doled out envelopes of cash to officials — an accusation Beijing denies. They have approached Pacific politicians as they travel overseas, inviting some to lunch and surveilling others. Two Pacific leaders said Chinese officials called to berate them so often they changed their numbers.

“China sees an opportunity,” said Surangel Whipps, Jr., the president of Palau, one of Taiwan’s two other remaining allies in the Pacific, who changed his number after calls from a Chinese official turned angry. Whipps said he and his country have come under intense pressure from Beijing ahead of an election this November.

“They are trying to get the message across: Join us and you’ll be better off,” he said in an interview. “And it is tempting when you’re hit with covid, when you have a lot of debt, when your country is up against the wall and China says we should do all of this for you.”

China’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

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It is all part of Beijing’s decades-long campaign to intimidate Taiwan, which it claims is part of China and which has ramped up under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who recently said that China’s rule over the island is “inevitable.” Beijing has pushed countries to recognize China, not Taiwan, as a way to bolster its claims and, by picking off its allies, China isolates Taiwan on the international stage.

Chinese officials appear to be redoubling these efforts after Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party, a man Beijing considers a dangerous separatist, was elected the next president of Taiwan.

Nauru’s surprise switch

Two days after the election, Nauru gave Taiwan two hours’ notice that it was ending relations with Taipei “effective immediately” and establishing ties with Beijing.

As recently as November, Nauru and Taiwan were discussing new airline routes. That month, Nauru officials met with Taiwan and its other Pacific allies on the sidelines of a summit in the Cook Islands. There was no sign Nauru was about to switch. “I thought everything was great,” said Whipps, who was at the meeting.

But by year’s end, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu was hearing otherwise. Nauru’s Foreign Minister Lionel Aingimea told him the island was under “lots of financial pressure” because of a drop in funding from Australia for an offshore refugee processing center, Wu said.

Wu offered to speak with the United States and Australia about making up the shortfall, but in the background China was already making moves.

Taiwan loses another diplomatic ally as Nauru recognizes China

Wu soon learned that Beijing was offering Nauru a deal worth more than $100 million — more than half of Nauru’s 2023-24 budget and more than 10 times what Taiwan gave Nauru annually in project-based aid.

“We were told by a Nauru friend … that China promised them that the aid is unlimited — whatever they requested,” Wu said.

Aingimea said last month’s diplomatic switch was because China was better able to help Nauru. “To say it’s a question of dollars is absolutely an insult to us,” he told The Post. “It’s about our development strategy.”

Beijing had agreed to infrastructure projects including a sports stadium, schools, hospitals and office complexes, as well as plans to move vulnerable coastal buildings to higher ground and to extend the life of aging phosphate mines.

The discussions with China began more than a year ago, Aingimea said. Nauru never told Taipei it was thinking of switching but it mentioned “geopolitical pressures.”

“They should have stepped up and said they would come and help,” Aingimea said. “We’re not a beggar nation that goes around asking people with our hands out.”

After the success with Nauru, Chinese officials have since promised to lure away more of Taiwan’s remaining allies — 11 countries, many of them small, and the Holy See. The head of the diplomatic team overseeing the reopening of China’s Embassy in Nauru last week suggested the remaining three Pacific nations would soon switch.

“China has already established diplomatic ties with 10 Pacific countries — Nauru was the 11th and I’m confident it won’t be the last,” Wang Xuguang told Chinese state media.

The competition over allies also illustrates China’s bid for influence in regions typically under Western sway.

“In the past, Beijing’s focus was mainly Taiwan itself,” said Lu Yeh-chung, a professor of diplomacy at the National Chengchi University in Taipei. “Now they’ve shown they intend to compete with the United States and Australia by snatching Taiwan’s allies in the South Pacific.”

Nauru’s switch also points to a new effort by Beijing to make the one-China principle — which maintains that Taiwan is part of China — an accepted fact. Announcing its switch and adherence to the one-China principle, Nauru described it as “in line” with a United Nations resolution in 1971 that established Beijing as the sole representative of China to the body. By linking the two, Beijing is “sneaking the idea that Taiwan is part of China into the rules-based international order,” said Lu.

Tuvalu’s newly elected officials are now in the process of choosing who will become prime minister. Apart from Paeniu, most of the front-runners have publicly dismissed the idea of switching ties to Beijing. Opposition leader Enele Sopoaga, who retained his place in parliament, said in December that he would “never” side with China.

Taiwan provides Tuvalu around $12 million per year in direct budgetary support, along with funds for projects including roughly $10 million for a proposed new parliament building, said Taiwan’s ambassador to Tuvalu, Andrew Lin.

A sinking nation is offered an escape route. But there’s a catch.

All the while, China has been targeting Tuvalu officials.

Simon Kofe, a member of parliament who was reelected last week, said he was approached by Chinese officials during a trip to Fiji, which has diplomatic ties with Beijing, in 2022, when he was Tuvalu’s foreign affairs minister. The officials offered a meeting with the Chinese ambassador, but Kofe declined. “If it’s happened to me, then it definitely is happening to others,” Kofe said.

Taiwan’s other Pacific allies — Palau and the Marshall Islands — have security agreements called compacts of free association with the United States that make a switch less likely.

Marshallese President Hilda Heine said her nation still had strong ties to Taiwan and was not under Chinese pressure to switch “at the moment.”

But Whipps said Palau’s close U.S. relationship made it even more of a target for China: “They are very interested in flipping a compact country.”

Palau won’t switch while he is president, Whipps said. But he feared for what would happen if someone else were elected.

“We know that if we all sever ties with Taiwan, that just gives China a green light to take over Taiwan,” he said. “For a small island like us, that is kind of scary.”

Miller reported from Sydney. Kuo and Chiang reported from Taipei.

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