Kiribati Recognizes Beijing in Taiwan’s Second Loss in Days

Days after the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing, the island nation of Kiribati has severed ties with Taiwan–a move that China’s foreign ministry “highly commends.” Kiribati becomes the seventh country to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing since the Xi administration turned up diplomatic pressure following the 2016 victory of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen; and the second island nation to do so this week as Washington and Beijing battle for influence in the maritime region. At Bloomberg, Jason Scott reports on the mounting successes of China’s diplomatic campaign to isolate Taiwan diplomatically:

Taiwan now has just 15 diplomatic partners worldwide, including four in the Pacific. At least two of those relationships are also looking shaky, as China’s spending spree of $1.6 billion in aid and loans to the region since 2011 — more than four times the amount Taiwan has been able to contribute — has outmatched the democratically-run island.

“The defections show that Taiwan has hit the ceiling on how much it’s willing to pay to keep its allies in the Pacific,” said Jonathan Pryke, who researches the Pacific Islands at Sydney-based think tank the Lowy Institute. “Ultimately for these countries, it’s an economic decision, not a foreign policy one. But for China the main game here is the marginalization of Taiwan, and it also solidifies its presence in the region.”

That footprint is a growing concern for the U.S. and its close ally Australia. Diplomats in Washington and Canberra fear that China’s end-game in the Pacific Islands may be to establish a naval base that would greatly enhance its military reach toward the Americas.

[…] While Beijing and U.S.-backed Taipei have competed for diplomatic recognition since 1949, the battle has intensified in recent years. Since Tsai was elected in January 2016, China has lured away a third of her 22 allies. [Source]

President Tsai and her DPP party are gearing up for elections in January, and there is suspicion that Beijing is attempting to influence the results. When Tsai took office, 22 countries recognized an independent Taiwan; Kiribati’s switch brings the number to 15.

At Reuters Yimou Lee reports on official comments from Taiwan, including the revelation that Beijing had promised significant aid to Kiribati before the switch was made:

“According to information obtained by Taiwan, the Chinese government has already promised to provide full funds for the procurement of several airplanes and commercial ferries, thus luring Kiribati into switching diplomatic relations,” [Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu] added.

China was trying to “suppress and reduce Taiwan’s international presence” and “ultimately destroy Taiwan’s sovereignty,” Wu said.

“It is blatantly obvious that the Chinese government, by creating these diplomatic incidents, seeks to manipulate public opinion in Taiwan, influence Taiwan’s upcoming presidential and legislative elections, and undermine its democratic processes.”

[…] “They have chosen to give up a sincere friend and become a chess piece for China. We think it’s a huge mistake,” [President] Tsai told reporters, warning of more “Chinese intimidation” ahead of the vote in January.

“They have one single goal – to reverse the presidential campaign. They are trying to tell Taiwanese that we can’t buy jets, we can’t support Hong Kong and that we can only elect a president who bows to pressure from China.” [Source]

The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers and Chris Horton put the recent diplomatic defections by the Solomon Islands and Kiribati into the context of China’s contest with the U.S. for influence in the Pacific:

[…] The move by the nation, Kiribati, on Friday came despite intense lobbying by American officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited the South Pacific only a month ago.

Though small and sparsely populated, Kiribati and the other nation to switch sides, the Solomon Islands, lie in strategic waters that the United States and its allies have dominated since the end of World War II. Now they have become attractive targets for China’s rising geopolitical ambitions, economically and militarily, under the country’s leader, .

“The U.S. and its allies are losing ground in the region,” Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, wrote in an email on Friday. “This is a region in which China is increasingly playing a more prominent role. Regional countries are trying to navigate between a more self-assured and assertive Beijing and a Washington that is still scrambling for an effective regional strategy.”

[…] The election of a new prime minister in Tuvalu, another small nation in the Pacific, has raised the prospect that it, too, may join the tilt toward Beijing.

The immediate loser of the diplomatic reshuffling this week was Taiwan’s current government. As of Friday, the democratic, self-governing island was recognized as an independent nation by only 14 countries and the Vatican. China’s ruling Communist Party claims Taiwan as its territory, despite having never controlled it. [Source]

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