Oceania – An External Battleground in Cross-Strait Relations (Part 1 of 2)

The welcoming for Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen during a March visit to Palau (Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office/Flickr)Pacific Island Countries – especially in Oceania – are at a confluence of numerous Chinese geopolitical goals. Greater economic resources to use, trade, diplomatic ties to counter US diplomacy, and opportunities to isolate Taiwan economically and diplomatically. China can reasonably achieve these goals by directing its efforts towards just a small group of island countries. In a two-part blog post series, I will present an overview of Cross-Strait relations between Taiwan and China, the role PICs have in this dynamic, and the connections of this geopolitical situation to broader issues of climate change PIC increasingly face today.

Background on Cross-Strait Relations

The Chinese Communist Party has ruled the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949, after it defeated the Nationalist Party (the KMT) and exiled them to the island of Taiwan. The Nationalists formed their own government in Taiwan as the Republic of China (ROC), but still claimed absolute sovereignty over the entirety of mainland China and Taiwan. The US initially recognized Taiwan as the legitimate ruling government, but eventually recognized the PRC and its CCP as the legitimate government in the 1970s, while still maintaining strong trade and informal ties with the ROC. Per the 1992 Consensus between the ROC and CCP, both Taipei and Beijing recognize that there is one unified China as a geographic entity encompassing Taiwan and the mainland, they each historically claim to be the sole governing body responsible for that territory.

Ever since the ROC democratized, and particularly under current President Tsai-Ing Wen, the Taiwanese people and government have increasingly viewed themselves as autonomous – if not independent – of the mainland, despite significant economic interdependence with the PRC. One of the CCP’s strategies for keeping Taiwan from breaking away from China fully and to increase unification pressure on the ROC is to keep Taiwan economically dependent on China. The ROC’s largest trading partner is the PRC, which gives it already significant influence in Taiwanese economic affairs.

China, Taiwan, and Oceania

The CCP’s strategy to force greater Taiwanese integration with the mainland is two-fold: economic and diplomatic isolation. In an effort to decrease dependence on China, Taiwan has and maintains trading relations with a few other countries around the world – many of which are Pacific Island Countries (PICs).

15 countries today recognize Taipei, and maintain official diplomatic relations with the ROC. They are listed below:

  • Belize
  • Guatemala
  • Eswatini
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Marshall Islands
  • Nauru
  • Nicaragua
  • Palau
  • Paraguay
  • Saint Kitts and Nevis
  • Saint Lucia
  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  • Tuvalu
  • Vatican City

Of these 15, four of them are PICs: the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, and Tuvalu. Only a year ago, this number was six. Both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati cut ties with Taiwan in September 2019 after receiving significant aid from China. By numbers alone, then, China has made significant progress in severing Taiwan’s foreign relations – specifically the PICs – diplomatic ties the CCP believes the ROC has no right to maintain. Taiwan also has Free Trade Agreements with ten total countries, and six of them recognize Taipei over Beijing. Only one of them is a PIC: Marshall Islands

Simply put, Taiwan’s links to Oceania are crucial for its trade and economic diversity, but also for its recognition as a country. The key six countries in the past year have the following positions on Taiwan and China:

  • Marshall Islands – continue to support Taiwan. Following the Solomon Islands and Kiribati’s decision to drop diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the Marshall Islands issued a statement of support for Taiwan. Recent elections in the Marshall Islands, however, may change this policy position in the near future.
  • Kiribati – changed its recognition from Taiwan to Beijing. It re-established diplomatic relations with China “following a long internal review and assessment of our international relations in accordance with the best national interest for our country and people.”
  • Solomon Islands – changed their recognition from Taiwan to Beijing. A Solomon Island government commission tasked with examining the potential switch concluded “Solomon Islands stands to benefit a lot if it switches and normalizes diplomatic relations with PRC”. Up until that point, the Solomon Islands had been Taiwan’s largest ally in the region.
  • Nauru – also continues to support Taiwan. Nauru President Aingimea, in a visit to Taiwan earlier this year reaffirmed not only the developmental relationship Taiwan and Nauru, but also the highly personal elements of Taiwan-Nauru ties.
  • Palau – continues to support Taiwan. Palau and Taiwan have embassies in each nation, and expanded their economic ties since the 1990s. Palau’s refusal to sever ties with Taiwan has garnered retribution from China. Last year, China banned its citizens from visiting Palau, hitting hard at a country whose tourist industry comprises about 40% of its GDP.
  • Tuvalu – continues to support Taiwan. Much like other PICs, Tuvalu faces rising sea levels that threaten its citizens, their livelihood, and territorial integrity. Despite this, Tuvalu rejected Chinese offers to build artificial islands for Tuvalu, and reaffirmed their commitment to Taiwan, stating that Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and Palau should hold line in the their support for Taiwan. The Nauru president gave support to this notion of a coalition against Chinese influence.

Stay tuned for part 2!

Jonah Bhide is a second year global policy studies masters candidate at the LBJ School where he studies the intersection of US national security and foreign policy. He interned with the US Military Delegation to NATO HQ in Brussels, Belgium in the summer of 2019. Jonah graduated from the US Air Force Academy in May 2018 with a BS in Political Science, and will attend pilot training upon completing his master's program.

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