What Does Nauru’s Switch to Beijing Mean for William Lai’s Taiwan?

What Does Nauru’s Switch to Beijing Mean for William Lai’s Taiwan?

Nauru Masthead
What Does Nauru’s Switch to Beijing Mean for William Lai’s Taiwan?

On January 13, the people of Taiwan elected William Lai Ching-te (賴清德) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) to serve as their next president. Two days later—the first workday after Taiwan’s election—the Pacific Island nation of Nauru, home to just over 10,000 people, announced that it would sever formal diplomatic ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing. This move reduces the number of Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies down to a dozen countries (including the Holy See).

Amid a flurry of thank you messages to official and unofficial partners regarding the success of the election, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) announced on X/Twitter around midday on January 15: “With deep regret we announce the termination of diplomatic relations with Nauru. This timing is not only China’s retaliation against our democratic elections but also a direct challenge to the international order. Taiwan stands unbowed and will continue as a force for good.”

Between Taipei and Beijing

This is not the first time that Nauru has switched diplomatic relations between Taiwan (as the Republic of China, ROC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In fact, Nauru’s government recognized Taipei from 1980 to 2002, switched to the PRC from 2002 to 2005, and then returned to Taipei from 2005 to 2024. Given this history, Nauru could potentially shift back to Taiwan’s camp in the future if politics in the country change—or if whatever that Nauru’s government is expecting from China does not pan out.

And what exactly did Nauru ask Taipei for as the price for continued diplomatic relations? According to media reports, the answer is fairly straightforward: USD $83 million to help keep an asylum detention center afloat after Australia declined to provide its usual funding. There is an odd irony about this being the impetus for the switch, but President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been true to her word that she would not participate in “checkbook diplomacy,” the practice of meeting the financial demands of Taiwan’s remaining allies in an effort to maintain their recognition.

Given the ominous timing, it is almost certain that this move was pre-planned by Beijing well in advance. Had Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨) presidential candidate Hou You-yi (侯友宜) won the election, it is unlikely that Nauru would have made this change. After all, there was a so-called “diplomatic truce” in place between Taiwan and China under the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), during which Beijing refrained from actively poaching Taiwan’s remaining allies.

Beijing likely kept this announcement in its back pocket until the right time as a demonstration of further punishment against the DPP, which has now won three consecutive presidential elections—something that had never occurred in Taiwan since its process of democratization began in the early 1990s. The message from Beijing is clear: expect more of this during the tenure of President Lai.

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Image: Relations in happier times: local citizens attend a welcome ceremony for President Tsai Ing-wen during an official visit to Nauru in March 2019. (Image source: ROC Presidential Office)

Taipei’s Remaining Official Friends

What can we expect in the coming months before Lai’s inauguration, as well as in the next four years that he holds office? In all likelihood, the PRC will treat the Lai Administration much as it did the Tsai Administration. After Tsai was elected in January 2016, the diplomatic truce was broken. Under her government (including the post-election transition period), ten countries switched their recognition from Taipei to Beijing: Nauru, Honduras, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Panama, Sao Tome and Principe, Nicaragua, and Burkina Faso.

At one point, following the defection of Panama, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic in 2017-18, the United States opted to get involved: recalling all three of its ambassadors and passing the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act (TAIPEI Act) to dissuade additional countries from following suit, as well as to encourage other countries to enhance their official and unofficial ties with Taipei. As Nauru’s switch makes clear, the law apparently has not achieved its desired goals.

Unless the Biden Administration decides to make an example of Nauru—as the Trump Administration attempted with Panama, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and even the Solomon Islands—we can expect Beijing to press the remaining 12 countries to switch from Taipei before Lai’s inauguration. Notably, many of the remaining countries—Belize, Eswatini, Guatemala, Haiti, the Holy See, Marshall Islands, Palau, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Tuvalu—have similar needs to the countries that have switched throughout Tsai’s presidency.

Just as it has many times before, it is likely that Beijing will seek to entice Taiwan’s allies with promises of economic or political support in an effort to get them to switch allegiances before Lai’s May inauguration. The Vatican could prove to be a primary target of these efforts. Beijing views the Holy See’s recognition as being of particular importance, as having the Vatican’s stamp of approval would provide a level of increased international legitimacy. The Vatican has come under fire for attempting to get closer to the PRC, particularly in the wake of reports about Beijing’s ongoing repression of both Uyghurs in Xinjiang and Catholics and other Christians across the country. Could Beijing attempt to broker some sort of deal to get the Holy See to make the change? It is very likely that the PRC will be motivated to do so, but the Vatican may be reluctant to accept a deal. The question remains whether Pope Francis is willing to take such a reputational hit, especially considering the church’s freedom to operate in Taiwan: for example, Lai’s vice presidential predecessor and the current premier, Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), is a Roman Catholic who has been knighted into the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

This author estimates that Beijing will successfully poach at least four countries between now and the end of Lai’s first term, with the Holy See, Guatemala, Haiti, and Belize being likely candidates based on Beijing’s strategic and symbolic preferences. This is true regarding the Holy See for the reasons outlined above, while Guatemala and Belize would complete a sweep of Central America; and Haiti is also vulnerable for a switch, since its delicate financial and political situation provides Beijing with potential leverage.

The Marshall Islands and Palau would represent a sweep of the Pacific Islands, but Washington’s renewed interest in these countries may be enough to keep a change at bay. Given the stir that such a switch has caused in the Solomon Islands, these countries may decide not to take that path. Since the Solomon Islands made the switch, Malaita province has pushed for independence as a direct result of the decision to dump Taipei, which resulted in mass anti-China protests in 2021.

What about Taiwan’s Unofficial Friends?

Between now and Lai’s inauguration in May, the other battle that Beijing will fight is pressuring countries and governments against sending unofficial delegations to the inauguration. Despite their lack of official ties with Taipei, many governments have sent symbolic delegations to attend past inaugurations to show some level of support for the incoming president. This has generally included sitting lawmakers, retired heads of state, and former high-level bureaucrats. Many of the heads of state and government from Taipei’s official allies are also likely to be in attendance. As noted in Politico’s ChinaWatcher newsletter, “When Tsai won her first term in 2016, then-former prime ministers from the Netherlands and Slovakia, Dries van Agt and Iveta Radičová, attended.” We should expect more of the same for Lai’s inauguration, as Tsai’s 2020 inauguration was a small ceremony given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. After all, once out of office, these officials are private citizens who can make their own decisions about whether they want to attend or not.

We can also expect a number of US lawmakers to attend, as is generally customary. The Biden Administration will likely send a similar delegation to the one that visited Taipei in the aftermath of the elections to meet with Lai, as well as representatives of the KMT and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 民眾黨). Such an unofficial delegation would be disappointing given the importance that the administration has placed on Taiwan’s security. Sending someone like US Trade Representative Katherine Tai would send a better signal about the future of the US-Taiwan economic relationship, particularly as officials in both Taipei and Washington have been pushing for a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two for years now. However, Tai’s attendance is very unlikely, as the Biden Administration would likely prefer to avoid aggravating China during a supposedly less frothy period of relations.

Eyes will be on who attends from countries in Europe, as well as the broader Indo-Pacific region. Will Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines send a cabinet official? What about Taiwan’s new friends in Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Czechia? The representatives they send—if they send anyone—will send a message about how these countries view their bilateral relationships over the next four years. Chinese diplomats will be working overtime to ensure that no high-level, sitting officials (and even former officials) attend the inauguration. Many stern warnings and statements will be made the closer we get to May.

With the way that cross-Strait relations are trending, and in light of Beijing’s responses to other high-level visits by US officials like former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it would not be unrealistic to expect that Beijing might sanction individuals who attend Lai’s inauguration.

With Taiwan welcoming a new president from a party that Beijing deeply distrusts, Chinese government officials across the world will likely work to further limit Taiwan’s international space over the next four years. In the short term, these efforts will center around enticing Taipei’s remaining allies to switch recognition and pressuring officials into skipping the inauguration. How the international community and Taiwan’s important unofficial partners respond will determine the success of Beijing’s efforts.

The main point: With Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party winning the 2024 presidential election, Beijing will work to poach Taipei’s 12 remaining formal diplomatic allies. It will also likely exert renewed pressure on governments around the world to further isolate Taiwan, including working to reduce attendance at Lai’s inauguration in May 2024.