In the second defection in a week, China acquired two diplomatic allies. After the Solomon Islands, a Pacific archipelago and former British protectorate of some 600,000 people, changed its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing, the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati severed ties with Taiwan switching its diplomatic allegiance to China. What was reflected in this turnaround is the typical Chinese way of courting new friends and allies by, what Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen dubbed as China’s “dollar diplomacy”. Since Tsai came to power in 2016, Taiwan has lost seven allies. China has continually and successfully used financial and political pressure to suppress Taiwan’s international space. Tsai called the Chinese move “a brazen challenge and detriment to the international order”.
Tsai is viewed with deep suspicion by Beijing for not adhering to its ‘One China’ policy. She fiercely opposes closer political integration with China. China wants to annex the island of 23 million and has tried to lure or pressure Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, claiming the state has no right to formal ties with any other nation, and tried to exclude it from international bodies such as the United Nations. Beijing has been relentlessly pushing to isolate Taipei internationally and this seems to be a determined strategy by Chinese President Xi Jinping to bring Taiwan under his control during his tenure.
Taiwan broke off in 1949 when communist forces overran China, forcing nationalist Kuomintang forces to flee to the island. Since its split with the mainland China, Taiwan has been operating like any other democratic nation with its own elections, government, currency, military and foreign policy. The majority of citizens identify as Taiwanese, enjoying visa-free access to 149 countries worldwide. Tsai fears that China shall intensify pressure and meddle in Taiwan’s January 11 presidential elections when Tsai will seek a second term. Because of Tsai’s pro-independence stand, Xi does not want to leave any stone unturned and frustrate Tsai’s wish to remain in office for more time.
Taipei has now accused China of pressuring its allies to try to meddle in its January elections when Ms Tsai will stand for a second term. With the break with Kiribati, Taiwan is left just with 15 formal allies although it still enjoys strong informal relations with many countries, including the US, UK, Australia and Japan. Though Taiwan would remain undeterred and unaffected with its January elections, the longer term impact of losing allies to China would leave the US and its Pacific allies nervous and worried as China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific continues to grow.
Writing in the Nikkei Asian Review, Michael Cole, a senior fellow in the Taiwan studies programme at Nottingham University and quoted in The Telegraph, observes: “It is clear that broader geopolitics played as important a role in Beijing’s calculations as the desire to punish the Tsai administration. In the Solomon Islands’ case, the aim is to undermine the US’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific and extend China’s influence closer to the US’s defensive line in the Western Pacific.” As a result of the decision, Mike Pence, the US vice-president, cancelled plans to meet Manasseh Sogavare, the Solomon Islands prime minister, in the margins of the UN general assembly in New York.
The latest casualty of Taiwan losing Kiribati demonstrates China’s growing influence and financial inducements while embracing the far-flung and strategically important island state into its diplomatic fold. Thus now Kiribati joins Salomon Islands, El Salvador, Panama, Sao Tome and Principe, the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso in switching allegiances from Taipei to Beijing. With this, Beijing’s diplomatic stranglehold around Taiwan is tightened.
No wonder, Taiwan was disappointed with Kiribati’s decision to terminate relations and disregarded the multifaceted assistance and sincere friendship between the two nations over the years. In response, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it “deeply regrets and strongly condemns the Kiribati government’s decision, which disregards the multifaceted assistance and sincere friendship extended by Taiwan to Kiribati over the years.”
The statement said that Beijing had lured Kiribati into switching diplomatic recognition by promising full funding, rather than loans, for airplanes and commercial ferries. It said Beijing’s aim was to destroy Taiwan’s sovereignty and force the island to accept a “one country, two systems” arrangement akin to the system of governance in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory. Taipei lost no time in ending all bilateral cooperation and recalling diplomatic, technical and medical staff stationed in Kiribati.
As expected, Beijing was jubilant and expressed appreciation with Kiribati’s decision to reestablish ties with Beijing. Addressing the press, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang remarked: “We support this important decision by Kiribati as a sovereign and independent nation. There is only one China in the world, and the People’s Republic of China government is the sole legal government representing the whole of China.” Thus China relished scoring two diplomatic coups in the same week.
The decisions of first the Solomon Islands and then Kiribati left the US and its Pacific allies such as the US and other Pacific allies such as Australia worry. Washington is examining means how to penalize the Solomon Islands for abandoning Taiwan. Beijing feels it has succeeded to some extent in thwarting Taiwan’s independence movement and disrupting the US support to Taiwan. Taiwan blamed Kiribati President Taneti Mamau and some members of the ruling party. Since coming to power in 2016, Mamau and his party members had frequent exchanges with Beijing, which Taiwan criticized as “highly unrealistic expectations regarding China”.
Kiribati occupies a strategic location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, roughly halfway between the US and Australia. The latter, along with Taiwan, has been a leading donor to Pacific nations, but Beijing is increasingly challenging that position in the Pacific as it wooes small island states with promises of donations, loans and investment. Remote and sparsely populated, Kiribati spans a vast marine area and is home to rich fishing grounds. Yet it is underdeveloped even by Pacific standards and dependent on foreign aid, which contributed roughly a third of government finances in 2016. The country is perhaps best known as the scene of bloody fighting during World War II, when US forces defeated the Japanese at the Battle of Tarawa. Later, the US and Britain conducted nuclear tests in the archipelago during the Cold War, leaving a legacy of radioactive contamination.
China and Kiribati had ties until 2003, when Tarawa established relations with Taipei, causing China to break off diplomatic relations. China used to have a space tracing station earlier, which is closed since 2003. Until then, China had operated the space tracking station, which played a role in tracking China’s first manned space flight in 2003, just before the suspension of ties. China’s space programme is overseen by the military.
Though China welcomed Kiribati’s decision to switch, the two have not yet officially signed an agreement to resume ties. This is expected soon.
Both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati are small developing nations but lie in strategic waters that have been dominated by the US and its allies since World War II. China’s moves to expand its influence in the Pacific have angered Washington. Over the years Beijing had taken advantage of fisheries and other commercial investments to establish a presence and extend its influence in Kiribati. Mamau had requested massive financial assistance from Taiwan to buy commercial planes. Kiribati rejected Taiwan’s suggestion that the contribution be in the form of commercial loans.
While the domino effect of the switch by two within a week is feared, Beijing’s influence in the strategically important Pacific region would have a “serious impact” on the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy. While the small and poor nations are easily lured by China’s offer of doles, the truism is that such Chinese financial assistance have not stimulated economic growth and infrastructure development of those nations, who often find themselves worse off in the long run.
While this is so, the US is not expected to abandon Taiwan by any means, its commitment to the One-China policy based on the Three Joint Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act shall continue.
Viewed from a wider perspective, Tsai’s suspicion that it is a part of Beijing’s attempts to manipulate public opinion in Taiwan ahead of the presidential and legislative elections in January is not far from the truth. As a first, Beijing would like to have a mainland-friendly Kuomintang presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu in power in Taiwan in the forthcoming elections in January. Beijing has warned the people of Taiwan that Taiwan would lose all of its remaining diplomatic allies if Tsai is re-elected as president. Beijing’s diplomatic offensive to isolate Taiwan is a part of its efforts to suppress Taiwan ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1.
Cross-strait relations froze since the 2016 election of Tsai as Taiwan’s President. Beijing blames Tsai’s administration’s refusal to accept the “1992 consensus” – an understanding that there is only “one China” with each side sing its own interpretation of what that is.
Washington, which is engaged in a strategic and trade rivalry with Beijing, has long supported Taiwan as an unofficial partner including through a mutual defence treaty, despite the US switching its official diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. The US has sold arms to the island and conducted naval patrols through the Taiwan Strait, despite Beijing’s protestations. After El Salvador ended ties with Taiwan in 2018, the US said it would “review” its relationship with the Latin American nation. The US policy towards the nations that switched allegiance to Beijing could also be reviewed.
Even while the Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe made a combative speech peppered with threats against the US over its military presence in Asia while addressing at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 2, 2019 that China will “fight at all costs” for “reunification” with Taiwan, and “fight to the end” if anyone tried to split China from Taiwan, the diplomatic switch of two allies of Taiwan adds a new dimension to the geopolitical dynamics of the region.
There shall be added impetus to the US strategy to beef up Taiwan’s military capability to cope with the Chinese threat. The recent announcement by the Trump administration approving the sale of new fighter jets to Taiwan expectedly irked China and stirred fresh debate about American arms sales to Taiwan. This needs to be understood from the larger geostrategic compulsions of the US to choose such a policy. Amid a brewing US-China rivalry over trade issues, the larger dynamics of region’s balance of power cannot be overlooked, which is why US arms sales to Taiwan become relevant.
According to a notification to the Congress issued by the United States’ Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) in August, the US is likely to see the sale of 66 Lockheed-Martin F-16C/D Block 70 multirole fighter jets to Taiwan in an $8 billion arms package that include advanced electronically scanned array radars, weapons integration, spares, and additional contractor and logistics support. The new-build fighters will replace the 40 or so 1970s-era Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II interceptors currently in service with the Taiwanese air force, and will be broadly similar to the capabilities offered by Taiwan’s current 140-odd F-16A/B Block 20 fighters, after these have been put through a $5.3 billion Lockheed-Martin upgrade programme that Taiwan signed up for in 2011.
This approval is the latest arms sale to Taiwan following its approval of a Taiwanese request for 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks and 250 short-range surface-to-air missiles worth $2.2 billion in July, and is the 16th such arms sale request approved for Taiwan since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. It came amid an escalating trade war between Washington and China, which has seen both sides slap tit-for-tat tariffs on each other’s goods and services.
China’s dealings with South China Sea have turned this oceanic space as a new flashpoint in the region, which if not handled carefully can turn the region into a new conflict zone. With China’s rise both economically and militarily as given, China still perceives US arms sales to Taiwan is an attempt to contain China and thus views as an unfriendly act. The bottom line, therefore, behind the diplomatic switch of Taiwan’s allies to Beijing is fraught with serious geostrategic implications as the dynamics get more complicated.
Taiwan risks losing more allies because of Chinese design but it would not be without friends. Its economic and ‘unofficial’ relations with a number of countries shall remain unaffected even when its international space shrinks. Beijing ought to calculate this scenario before deciding to intervene militarily to annex it with the mainland. Taiwan’s comparison with Hong Kong is always imperfect and the Hong Kong model cannot apply to Taiwan. Taiwan must feel and allowed to feel secure as a self-respecting and independent nation with right to decide its status and future.