Written by Ma’ili Yee.
Image credit: President Tsai visits Tuvalu by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
A year after losing two of its Pacific Island allies, Taiwan continues to feel the mounting pressure of Chinese influence in the South-Pacific ocean. Within recent years, China has pointedly increased its presence in the Pacific through financial aid, commercial trade, and high-level diplomatic engagement. The four Pacific states of Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Palau now compose nearly a third of the remaining countries that officially recognize the ROC. Despite their small geographic and economic size, Taiwan would be wise to recognize these Pacific island nations’ immense political weight and properly address their top concerns—sustainable development and climate change—through concerted foreign policy. As the U.S. and its allies ramp up engagement in the Indo-Pacific, Taiwan could play a critical role by pushing for climate sustainability and assuaging critical doubts surrounding American and Australian commitments. Given its own asymmetric resources in the competition with China, Taiwan should leverage the interest of its powerful allies to combat China’s growing presence and expand the aims of its New Southbound Policy to include its Pacific Island partners.
In 2019, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati both switched official recognition to the PRC, triggering vocal condemnation from Taipei and disapproval from the United States. The Chinese government had promised the Solomon Islands – formally Taiwan’s largest Pacific ally – to build a sports stadium, increase infrastructure spending and provide the necessary funds to repay a $1.2m debt to Taiwan. In a subsequent statement, Prime Minister Sogavre argued, “it would be simply irresponsible to isolate a global willing player to assist…in the pursuance of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including actions on climate change.” He also rejected using his country as “political football” in the power politics of Taiwan and the United States.’ According to a report that informed the Solomon government’s switch, while the U.S. treats the Island simply as a geostrategic location and does not show interest in addressing underdevelopment and poverty, China genuinely pursues mutual development in the region.
Several other Pacific nations had already signed on to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to promote infrastructure development and economic growth. When the U.S. formally pulled out of the Paris Agreement, several Pacific Island nations turned to China for help, specifically citing concerns over climate change. Despite Taiwanese and American objections, an increasing number of Pacific Island nations such as Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Samoa and Tonga welcomed China to increase resiliency. Considered an area more or less secure since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been slow to focus on traditionally high priority regions like the South China Sea and the Middle East. With territories scattered throughout the Pacific Rim, the U.S. and its allies have acted as the “resident power” to ensure stability and strategic interests. However, as Pacific Island nations coalesce around environmental interests and Beijing increasingly offers appealing incentives, such apathy from traditional Western partners has proven ineffective in maintaining strict loyalties.
Positioned at the frontlines of climate change and rising sea levels, Pacific Island nations have grown increasingly organized to pursue their climate goals and condemn major carbon emitters. Growing cooperation amongst South-Pacific countries through the Pacific Island Forum and other Pacific institutions have empowered the historically marginalized region. In an open letter to Australian Ambassador, Patrick Suckling, the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network wrote, “Fiji and other Pacific island governments are demanding that polluting nations reduce emissions, consistent with keeping temperature rise below 1.5°C.” Pacific Island nations have recognized their new ability to leverage competing Chinese and Western interests, exercising greater autonomy in determining their own fate. Though the U.S. recently committed over $200mil of aid to the region, it must contend with a history of increased militarization at the cost of polluting the environment and diverting funding from climate change resilience programs.
Now, as America’s focus shifts to the Indo-Pacific, Taiwan should play to its strengths to convince its four remaining allies of the efficacy of continued collaboration. Taiwan and Western powers must convince Island nations that they are not just pawns in a geostrategic game, but partners in the struggle against climate change and Chinese attacks on democracy. To do so, Taiwan should extend its New Southbound Policy to the South Pacific—increasing aid to aid climate resiliency, economic collaboration, people-to-people exchanges, and facilitating regional cooperation. In Nauru, this could include an increased Taiwanese financial commitment to combat Chinese dollar diplomacy and professional assistance in managing a new international port financed by the Asian Development Bank. In 2018, China essentially banned Chinese tourism to Palau, targeting its most important economic sector to pressure a switch in diplomatic recognition. In response, Taiwan could use this to its advantage by financially assisting Palau’s transition to high quality, sustainable tourism, reducing dependence on the Chinese market.
Ultimately, climate change will remain the greatest motivator for Pacific Island nations in determining future alliances. In a message to the Australian government, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu clearly indicated that Canberra’s failure to address climate issues properly threatened any potential relationships in the Pacific. Furthermore, though the Marshall Islands recently condemned China’s aggressive tactics in the Pacific, it has also declared a national climate crisis calling for international assistance. To counter China’s presence in the region, the U.S. is highly interested in renewing its Compact of Free Association with the Islands by providing additional funds toward climate resilience. However, the U.S. had historically refused to provide proper cleanup and financial reparations after twelve years of nuclear bomb testing decimating the Islands. As sea levels continue to rise and the U.S. fails to collaborate on a global scale to address climate change, it is unclear if this commitment will be enough to renew a partnership with the Marshall Islands.
Here, Taiwan must advocate for its Pacific Island partners by pushing its allies in the region to seriously address these climate concerns. If Taiwan hopes to retain its few remaining diplomatic allies, it must expand its engagement through the New Southbound Policy and appeal to its Western partners to do the same. Thus, Taiwan should diminish doubts about its commitment in the region by making outreach to Pacific Island allies a part of its New Southbound policy. Taipei should lead the way by making concrete improvements to the region’s economic development and sustainability through increased aid and green efforts such as cleaning up its illegal fishing enterprises. As China shifts the tides in the South Pacific, Taiwan and Western engagement can no longer center on its own strategic interests. However, it must genuinely address Pacific Island nations’ long-term development and climate resilience needs.
Ma’ili Yee is a Native Hawaiian scholar from Oahu, Hawaii. She is a Masters student at the Stanford Center for East Asian Studies with a focus on China. Her research focuses on China’s rising presence in Oceania.
This article is part of a special issue on “Taiwan Security Issues: Student Commentaries from the Stanford Center for East Asian Studies.