BEIJING — In its contest with the United States for influence in the Pacific, China is quickly gaining momentum.
For the second time this week, a Pacific island nation has decided to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, severing ties with Taiwan, a close U.S. ally. The move by the nation, Kiribati, on Friday came despite intense lobbying by American officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited the South Pacific only a month ago.
Though small and sparsely populated, Kiribati and the other nation to switch sides, the Solomon Islands, lie in strategic waters that the United States and its allies have dominated since the end of World War II. Now they have become attractive targets for China’s rising geopolitical ambitions, economically and militarily, under the country’s leader, Xi Jinping.
“The U.S. and its allies are losing ground in the region,” Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, wrote in an email on Friday. “This is a region in which China is increasingly playing a more prominent role. Regional countries are trying to navigate between a more self-assured and assertive Beijing and a Washington that is still scrambling for an effective regional strategy.”
Beijing celebrated its diplomatic coup this week, but it also risks a backlash, both in Taiwan and in its relations with the United States, which are already badly strained by the trade war and rising suspicion of China’s global ambitions.
The developments have also added to fears about China’s domineering presence in the Pacific. Chinese investments in logging in the Solomon Islands, for example, are already threatening to exhaust that country’s once pristine rainforests.
China’s bare-knuckle tactics, though, might be proving effective in the short term.
Kiribati, an archipelago straddling the Equator, and the larger Solomon Islands both appear to have been lured by the promise of greater economic investment that, apparently, the United States and Taiwan can no longer be sure to match.
The election of a new prime minister in Tuvalu, another small nation in the Pacific, has raised the prospect that it, too, may join the tilt toward Beijing.
The immediate loser of the diplomatic reshuffling this week was Taiwan’s current government. As of Friday, the democratic, self-governing island was recognized as an independent nation by only 14 countries and the Vatican. China’s ruling Communist Party claims Taiwan as its territory, despite having never controlled it.
Taiwan has faced intensifying economic and diplomatic pressure from China ever since the 2016 election of its president, Tsai Ing-wen, whose campaign for re-election in January could now face a significant setback.
But there are some signs that China’s efforts to isolate Taiwan are building support for Tsai’s government, not eroding it. The same goes for Beijing’s unwavering support for the government and the police in Hong Kong, where the “one country, two systems” governing model — which Xi has dangled as an incentive to Taiwan to unify with the People’s Republic of China — has been severely tarnished by the continuing unrest there.
Even before those protests, however, polls in Taiwan showed negligible support for unification with China under any arrangement.
“China’s suppression of Taiwan in the international arena cannot change the indisputable fact of Taiwan’s existence, nor can it coerce the Taiwanese people into abandoning their democratic and free way of life,” Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Friday, which criticized Kiribati and Beijing with equal intensity.
The statement accused Kiribati’s president, Taneti Maamau, and his governing party of holding “highly unrealistic expectations regarding China.” It claimed that Maamau had sought a donation, to be used for the purchase of commercial aircraft, rejecting Taiwan’s offers to provide loans to purchase them.
Kiribati — a former British colony composed of 33 coral atolls and reef islands, scattered across a swath of the Pacific Ocean about twice the size of Alaska — informed Taiwan of its intent to sever relations, but it did not immediately announce its intention to recognize Beijing. That is expected soon. Repeated calls to the president’s office were not answered.
The country has a gross domestic product of less than $200 million and earns much of its income by charging fees to foreign fishing fleets that operate in its waters. The value of fishing in Kiribati-controlled waters was worth over $1 billion per year in 2014, nearly as much as the entire catch in waters owned by all the other Pacific island countries and territories, according to a study financed by the Australian government.
That alone would attract China, which is desperate to meet its enormous demand for seafood.
For countries that align themselves with Beijing, the dividends can be swift. A subsidiary of China Railway Group, a construction conglomerate whose major shareholder is a state company, signed an $825 million contract with the Solomon Islands for a gold-mining project on Monday, the same day the country switched its recognition policy.
“Principle cannot be bought,” a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Geng Shuang, said Friday, responding to Taiwan’s criticism.
He said that international support for the People’s Republic as the sole nation representing all of China was “unstoppable” and that severing ties with Taiwan “would surely bring unprecedented opportunities for the development of Kiribati.”
Taiwan is governed by the Republic of China, which based itself in Taiwan after losing a bloody civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in 1949.
Both Taipei and Beijing claimed to be the rightful ruler of both sides of the Taiwan Strait until the 1990s, when Taipei effectively abandoned its goal of retaking China. To this day, neither government will maintain diplomatic ties with countries that recognize the other.
Although the United States switched its official recognition to China in 1979, it maintains close economic and military ties with Taiwan. That includes arms sales, most recently a package of $8 billion for 66 F-16 fighter jets.
Bonnie S. Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who visited Taiwan this week, said the luring away of two more allies was retaliation for the latest arms sales. “Poaching another of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies (or two?) was deemed the proportionate response,” she wrote in an email.
The defections are already rippling through domestic politics in Taiwan, where presidential and legislative elections are less than four months away. Ni and other analysts said they believed that was Beijing’s intention, at least in part.
Since Tsai’s election in 2016, Beijing has persuaded seven countries to stop recognizing Taiwan as an independent nation. She faces a re-election race against Han Kuo-yu, the populist mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s third largest city. Han is the new standard-bearer of the Kuomintang, a party which, despite a history of fighting the Communists in China and being one of Washington’s most fervent Cold War allies, now generally favors closer relations with Beijing.
Han’s campaign released a statement earlier this week calling on Tsai to “find concrete steps to stop the domino effects of allies’ diplomatic de-recognition,” while also criticizing Beijing.
The United States has watched China’s moves with concern but has seemed unable to stop them. At a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday, David R. Stilwell, the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, criticized “China’s actions to bully Taiwan through economic coercion, squeezing Taiwan’s international space and poaching diplomatic partners.”
He added that China’s military modernization and increasing operations in the Pacific were “clearly intended not only to deter U.S. efforts to sustain our forward presence in the region, but to signal to other countries, and to the authorities on Taiwan, that they are under direct threat.”
The New York Times.” data-reactid=”37″>This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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