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All eyes on the Pacific’s diplomatic game


By Mar-Vic Cagurangan


Nauru, the third smallest country in the world with a population of 12,000, stirred the diplomatic landscape when it cut ties with Taiwan and announced its shift to China. The switch played up the intensity of geopolitical competition in the Pacific island region.

Nauru’s move was not a hard-to-solve puzzle. Beijing is working overtime to exert its influence in the Pacific. Though small, Nauru is a sovereign nation with a seat in the UN and thus represents a vote that renders its diplomatic appeal to both China and Taiwan.

While disappointed, Nauru’s move did not come as a total surprise to Taiwan. It was an economic decision.

Chia Ping Liu

“Taiwan is aware that China has long made efforts to approach Naurus political leaders, offering financial assistance as an incentive to request Nauru to switch diplomatic recognition,” said Chia-Ping Liu, director general of Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Guam.


“Unfortunately, Nauru was lured by China’s enticements and disregarding the long-term assistance and friendship from Taiwan.”

With an area of only 21 km,, Nauru is a phosphate-rock island with rich deposits near the surface. Nauru is a $133 million economy. It is one of the five members of the Pacific Islands Forum’s Micronesian subregion, along with Palau, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Kiribati.

The FSM and Kiribati both have diplomatic ties with China and Nauru’s switch shifted the balance with only Palau and the Marshall Islands recognizing Taiwan. Following Nauru’s switch, Palau and the Marshall Islands reaffirmed their commitment to Taiwan.

“Based on the long-standing friendship between Taiwan and Nauru, Taiwan demonstrated the greatest sincerity and proposed assistance programs within its capacity,” Liu said.

Taiwan has been extending assistance to Nauru, funding bilateral projects that included agriculture, fisheries, hospitals, skills training, energy, infrastructure trade and women empowerment. Taiwan has now terminated its diplomatic relations with Nauru, recalled staff of its embassy and Technical Mission, as well as ended all bilateral cooperation projects in Nauru.


Nauru’s action was a new blow to Taiwan, coming five years after Kiribati and the Solomon Islands took China’s bait.

Tuvalu, the other Pacific island nation with diplomatic ties to Taiwan, is now the subject of conjectures. Will it jump ship as well?

“China has long exerted constant pressure on Taiwan’s diplomatic space, including repeated false promises to entice Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, restricting Taiwan’s diplomatic space,” Liu said. “As a force of good, Taiwan will continue to work with its Pacific allies and like-minded countries to contribute to peace, stability and development in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world.”

Taiwan’s diplomatic loss came after the country's election in which the incumbent vice president, William Lai Ching-te, won the three-way presidential elections with 40.5 percent of the vote.

“As the world congratulates Taiwan on its successful election, the Beijing authorities have utilized this moment to exert diplomatic pressure as a repudiation against democratic values and a brazen challenge to the order and stability of the international community,” Liu said.


Nauru President David Ranibok Adeang said his government’s decision was "in the best interests" of the country.  "This means that the Republic of Nauru will no longer recognize Taiwan as a separate country but rather as an inalienable part of China’s territory, and will sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan as of this day and no longer develop any official relations or official exchanges with Taiwan,” the Nauru government said.

Liu said Nauru made an “incorrect decision” based on “false narratives stemming from an erroneous interpretation of UN General Assembly Resolution 2758.”

Liu said after the election, Taiwan engaged Nauru regarding bilateral cooperation projects but China raised its bid. “Nauru repeatedly demanded massive amounts of economic assistance from Taiwan and proceeded to compare Taiwan’s aid proposals with those of China,” he said.

Meanwhile, Palau remains loyal to Taiwan, which “has been a good friend to many small island nations,” President Surangel Whipps Jr. said.  “Their support comes without qualifications, respecting the rule of law that allows nations to determine for themselves, without coercion, whom they can build diplomatic relations with. This is a testament to Taiwan’s respect for sovereignty and international law.”

Washington has a stake in the diplomatic game as well. It has been amplifying its engagement with the Pacific island region, offering more economic packages in recent years.  While maintaining its one-China policy, the U.S. considers China its “most challenging competition.”

It recognized its weakness when the Solomon Islands signed a secret security agreement with China in 2022., a deal that observers fear would open the region's borders to the People's Liberation Army.

And Beijing’s new gain is Washington’s loss.

After Nauru's announcement, the U.S. stepped in to solicit international support for Taiwan, which has been left with only 12 nations that recognize it as a sovereign country.


"Taiwan is a reliable, like-minded, and democratic partner," Matthew Miller, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, said in a statement.

"While the government of Nauru’s action on Jan. 15 to sever its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan is a sovereign decision, it is nonetheless a disappointing one," Miller said, warning that the outcome of the Pacific island nation's action may not be what it expects.


"The PRC often makes promises in exchange for diplomatic relations that ultimately remain unfulfilled," Miller said. "We encourage all countries to expand engagement with Taiwan and to continue to support democracy, good governance, transparency, and adherence to the rule of law."

The world is paying attention to the region’s diplomatic chess.

"It’s unrealistic to try to eliminate the possibility of diplomatic switches in the Pacific,” Meg Keen and Mihai Sora, Lowy Institute’s diplomacy experts, wrote in The Interpreter. “And it’s not so much diplomatic ties with China that concern Western countries – they themselves all have ties with China – it’s when China pushes into the security space in the Pacific that alarm bells go off.”

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