By Michael Walsh
There is breaking news that suggests that the Tuvalu Prime Minister, Kausea Natano, has lost his seat in local elections.
This sets the stage for Seve Paeniu and Enele Sopoaga to make a move for the prime ministership.
In Taipei, these events will be seen as the latest in a series of extremely unwelcome foreign policy developments.
While Natano was committed to maintaining diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, Paeniu has expressed an interest in exploring a switch to China.
Meanwhile, Sopoaga has advocated for walking away from the recently negotiated Falepili Union Treaty with Australia.
If either succeeds in their campaigns, then the Biden administration will be faced with a major foreign policy conundrum.
On the one hand, Australia is not committed to fighting for the diplomatic recognition of Taiwan by Tuvalu.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong recently signaled that her government would not intervene in such a decision.
On the other hand, the Biden Administration has shown no interest in extending a similar U.S. compact of free association to Tuvalu.
It therefore only seems like a matter of time before Tuvalu drops Taiwan and makes the switch to China.
That switch would almost certainly have major knock-on effects on U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.
Right now, the only other Pacific island countries that recognize Taiwan are Palau and the Marshall Islands.
As a consolation prize, the Biden Administration could try to flip the remaining freely associated state, the Federated States of Micronesia.
However, that would be a problematic move.
It would simply reinforce the notion that the regional diplomatic recognition of Taiwan hinges on compacts of free association with the United States.
For the Biden Administration, that would carry domestic political implications.
Prior to leaving office, the Trump administration considered similar compacts of free association with Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu.
Following the inauguration, the Biden Administration opted not to pursue that course of action.
The pursuit of a Palikir flip would therefore beg questions of whether the Biden Administration made a mistake.
Whatever the merits of that criticism, the Biden Administration has to play with the cards that are sitting on the table, and catching up on the river will not be easy.
In Washington, the domestic political climate is getting harsher by the day.
At present, the Biden administration does not have a lot of other viable responses.
It would be extremely difficult for the Biden administration to persuade the U.S. Congress to go for a U.S. compact of free association with Tuvalu.
Despite bipartisan support, the United States Congress is wavering on the enabling legislation for the multi-billion dollar renewals of the U.S. compacts of free association with Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.
To try to sweeten the pot for the United States Congress, the Biden
administration could ask Taiwan, Japan, and/or South Korea to foot a large part of the bill for a U.S. compact of free association with Tuvalu.
However, there is absolutely no guarantee that those partners would be willing pay the skyrocketing costs that would be needed to secure such a deal.
It is therefore unclear how the Biden Administration will get out of this political bind — short of pragmatically accepting the loss of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan outside the freely associated states.
That should worry the Lai administration.
(Republished with permission from Pacific Dispatch)