Taiwan, Tuvalu, and Uncertainty in the Pacific

Taiwan, Tuvalu, and Uncertainty in the Pacific

Tuvalu Masthead
Taiwan, Tuvalu, and Uncertainty in the Pacific

For Taiwan, the beginning of 2024 has been exceptionally eventful. Domestically, it held yet another successful national election—in which the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) was elected for an unprecedented third consecutive presidential term, while the opposition Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) secured a plurality of seats in the legislature and the legislative speakership. On the international front, however, Taiwan has already faced further challenges. [GT1] On January 15, just two days after the Taiwanese election, the government of Nauru announced that it would be switching its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Despite Nauru’s small size—by population, it is the world’s third-smallest nation—the move was nonetheless a painful one for Taipei, which has seen its list of formal diplomatic partners shrink significantly in recent years. For a nation that has long viewed such partnerships as inextricably linked with domestic and international legitimacy, the switch represented yet another step toward an intolerable state of formal isolation.

Unfortunately for Taiwan, its difficulties in the Pacific Islands may not yet be over. On January 26, Tuvalu—an archipelagic nation of just over 11,000 people located roughly 1,000 miles to Nauru’s southeast—held its own general elections. In the aftermath of the contest, much remains uncertain, as Tuvalu’s Parliament has yet to select a new prime minister. However, early results suggest that Taiwan’s partnership with the island republic may be in jeopardy, with current Prime Minister Kausea Natano—a reliable supporter of Taiwan in the region—losing his legislative seat. While Natano’s successor is by no means guaranteed to follow Nauru’s lead, the election has nevertheless exposed the delicate state of Taiwan’s diplomatic position in the Pacific Island states, as well as the growing presence of the PRC in the region.

Taiwan-Tuvalu Connections

For Taiwan, the Pacific Islands region has historically been a stronghold of diplomatic support. Until 2019, the vast, oceanic area was home to six of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, many of which maintained long and productive partnerships with Taipei. Despite its small size—even relative to other Pacific Island states—Tuvalu has been perhaps Taiwan’s most reliable partner in the region. Since 1979, soon after Tuvalu’s independence from the United Kingdom, the two have built a remarkably durable and consistent relationship, even as the PRC has steadily whittled away at Taiwan’s other Pacific partnerships.

For both Taipei and Funafuti (Tuvalu’s capital and largest city), this bilateral relationship has brought a range of benefits. In the case of Tuvalu, Taiwan has long been a source of vital aid, investment, and trade, with Taipei providing around USD $12 million in annual support for the island nation. For Tuvalu, the most aid-dependent nation in the world, this support has been instrumental in fueling development and sustaining economic growth. In perhaps the most visible instance of Taiwanese assistance to Tuvalu, Taipei provided approximately USD $10 million in funding for the construction of a new parliament house in Funafuti, with construction commencing in late 2023.  

Screenshot 2024 02 06 at 11.55.43 AM

Image: Taiwan’s Ambassador to Tuvalu Andrew Lin (林東亨) attends a “drilling ceremony” for a new parliament house in Tuvalu, funded primarily by Taiwan. (Image source: Taiwan Embassy in Tuvalu)

In recent years, Taiwan’s government has taken a more targeted, needs-based approach to its aid programs, abandoning the more indiscriminate funding of the past. Under President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Taiwan has sought to emphasize its credentials as an advanced democracy, leveraging its expertise and experience to expand its existing partnerships. As one of Taipei’s few remaining allies, Tuvalu has been a direct beneficiary of these efforts. According to Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund (TaiwanICDF, 財團法人國際合作發展基金會), Taiwan has implemented a variety of programs in Tuvalu, including projects focusing on medical personnel training, agricultural practices, and disaster resilience. More broadly, Taipei has recently partnered with the United States to improve economic prospects for women in Taiwan’s Pacific Island allies, including Tuvalu.

In implementing these programs, Taiwan has also worked to present itself as a free and open alternative to China’s more opaque authoritarianism. In a statement released prior to the Tuvaluan election, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA, 中華民國外交部) stressed the many values it shares with Tuvalu, including “freedom, democracy, human rights, and rule of law.” In a further effort to play up its similarities with Tuvalu and other Pacific Island states, Taiwan has also sought to accentuate its historical, ethnological, and linguistic ties to the region, centering this campaign on Taiwan’s generally accepted role as the birthplace of the Austronesian peoples that later colonized the islands of the Pacific. Taiwan’s Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP, 原住民族委員會) has played an instrumental part in these efforts, working to build ties between indigenous communities in Taiwan and Tuvalu.

For Taiwan, such investment in—and engagement with—Tuvalu provides a variety of benefits. Perhaps most importantly, Tuvalu has consistently served as a strong advocate for Taiwan on the international stage, pushing for Taiwanese involvement in international organizations and touting Taiwan’s many accomplishments. Moreover, the recent efforts to provide targeted assistance to Tuvalu have provided Taiwan with an opportunity to showcase its humanitarian contributions and highlight its technical expertise. More symbolically, Tuvalu stands as one of Taiwan’s last remaining formal partners, a distinction that grants it outsized importance in the Taiwanese psyche. Small as it may be, Tuvalu remains a crucial source of national legitimacy for Taipei. Unfortunately for Taiwan, however, it is not alone in attaching symbolic power to such diplomatic partnerships.

China on the Rise

As many experts have noted, Taiwan’s network of Pacific diplomatic relationships have come under severe pressure in recent years. Over the past decade, the PRC has poured considerable resources into the Pacific Islands region. Taking advantage of declining US influence in the region, Beijing has rapidly expanded its presence in Pacific Island states, leveraging its vast economy to apply pressure and exert influence. As Aleksandra Gadzala Tirziu has argued, these efforts often follow a “predictable pattern,” in which China funds highly visible, ostentatious projects (such as stadiums and government facilities), frequently accompanied by investments in infrastructure projects (such as ports and airstrips). These investments are often supplemented by outreach to key political elites, with the aim of cultivating pro-China factions within regional governments and placing pressure on holdouts.

While these efforts are likely motivated by a variety of factors—from economic diversification to power projection—a desire to further isolate Taiwan is certainly toward the top of the list. Since 2016, when Tsai was first elected, China has engaged in a global campaign to marginalize Taipei whenever possible, typically by using its influence to chip away at the island democracy’s shrinking list of diplomatic partners. Given the comparatively large number of these allies in the region, it is perhaps no surprise that the Pacific Islands have emerged as a key battleground in this confrontation.

Despite Taiwan’s best efforts, the PRC influence campaign in the region has proven largely successful. Just since 2019, Taiwan has now lost three Pacific allies (Kiribati and Solomon Islands in 2019, and now Nauru in 2024), leaving it with just three formal partners in the area (Tuvalu, Palau, and the Marshall Islands). As Joel Atkinson has noted, China has successfully peeled away the most populous and “prestigious” of Taiwan’s regional partners, leaving it with three of the smallest and least influential. This pattern was likely intentional, as Beijing almost assuredly targeted nations whose defection would cause the most pain to Taiwan. However, with these primary objectives achieved, the PRC has now turned its eyes to Taipei’s last remaining tethers to the region.

Elections in Tuvalu  

Against this contentious backdrop, it is perhaps inevitable that Tuvalu’s 2024 elections received unprecedented international attention. From the outset, the competition was framed by many observers as a referendum on the nation’s relationship with Taiwan. While some of these commentaries were somewhat overwrought, Tuvalu-Taiwan ties were indeed a key factor in the elections, with candidates across the archipelago mentioning Taiwan in their official platforms. These discussions gained even more salience in the wake of Nauru’s switch, as many international commentators speculated that the election could presage a similar move by Tuvalu in the near future.

Unfortunately for observers hoping for a quick, decisive end to this speculation, the final results of Tuvalu’s election have yet to fully materialize. This delay is largely a product of the country’s unique electoral system, which is heavily influenced by traditional clan relationships and regional alliances. In each election, each of Tuvalu’s eight constituencies select two representatives to send to the national parliament. Once this process is completed, the 16 members of parliament are sent by boat to Funafuti—a trip which takes approximately 27 hours—where they select a member from their ranks to serve as prime minister. Notably, Tuvalu has no political parties, so the selection process for prime minister is often contentious and defined by personal allegiances. As a result of this idiosyncratic system, the naming of a prime minister frequently occurs days or weeks after the election itself.

As previously mentioned, January’s election resulted in current Prime Minister Kausea Natano losing his seat in the Funafuti constituency, meaning that a new leader will be chosen from the incoming parliament. For Taiwan, this is a less-than-ideal outcome. While Natano was relatively silent on the Taiwan partnership during the early days of his tenure—indeed, his election in 2019 was described as “a potential blow for Taiwan”—he has since distinguished himself as a steadfast supporter of the partnership. In the wake of his ouster, Taiwan once again faces an uncomfortable uncertainty about its future in the archipelago.

Though it remains unclear who will succeed Natano, a small field of candidates has emerged to fill the void. For Taiwan, the most concerning of these contenders is current Minister of Finance Seve Paeniu, who retained his seat in the 2024 election. Unlike many of his rivals, Paeniu has been far more circumspect in his discussions of Taiwan, pledging only that he would “review” the country’s ties with Taipei. More concerningly for Taiwan, Paeniu has also discussed China as a potential partner, stating that “[i]t comes down to whichever partner country is able to respond to and support achievement of Tuvalu’s development priorities and aspirations.” Based on these comments, many observers have prognosticated that a government under Paeniu’s leadership may be more amenable to switching recognition.

By contrast, Paeniu’s two leading opponents are far more supportive of maintaining ties with Taiwan. Enele Sopoaga, who served as prime minister from 2013-19, has long been an advocate for Taiwan. In recent remarks to Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA, 中央通訊社), Sopoaga stated that “You can read my lips. Yes. I will not make even the slightest change [to the relationship with Taiwan]. There is no need even to look at that issue right now.” Similarly, current Minister for Justice, Communication, & Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe has frequently expressed support for the Tuvalu-Taiwan partnership, including meeting with President Tsai in June 2023.

A Murky Future

For Taiwan, the 2024 Tuvalu elections seem to be something of a mixed bag. While Taipei lost a staunch supporter in Prime Minister Natano, the majority of potential successors appear likely to follow his example. Even Seve Paeniu, framed by some as the “pro-China” candidate, has merely alluded to a vague “review” of the relationship. However, as Nauru’s sudden switch has made painfully clear, Taiwan cannot afford to be complacent if it intends to maintain its partnership with Tuvalu. China’s intentions in the region are self-evident, and any future Tuvaluan prime minister will undoubtedly face intense pressure from Beijing. Tuvalu is by no means guaranteed to follow Nauru’s example, but Taiwan’s diplomats will likely need to be proactive in pushing back against China’s pressure and reassuring their Tuvaluan partners.

The main point: In the wake of Nauru’s switch in recognition to the PRC, many observers framed the 2024 Tuvaluan election as a prelude to another painful defection. While Taiwan lost a key supporter in the election, a Tuvaluan switch is certainly not guaranteed.

The author would like to thank GTI Spring 2024 Intern Uma Baron for her research assistance.