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In late September, two Pacific island countries — the Solomon Islands and Kiribati — announced that they were switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of the Solomon Islands noted in his statement announcing the change that “the Solomon Islands is better served making a decision that reflects our long term development interests.”
Beijing’s push for diplomatic recognition of “one China” has been a long-standing foreign policy priority that will continue until no remaining country recognizes Taiwan. But in Oceania, attention to diplomatic maneuvers between China and Taiwan masks another key trend: In the competition to maintain access to partner-nations, a crowded field of contenders has entered the fray.
Who is competing?
The shifts in diplomatic recognition by Pacific island countries are occurring against the larger backdrop of geopolitical competition. Great power competition between the United States and China tends to receive the most attention in Asia, but Oceania is an increasingly crowded region, with heightened activity from a wide variety of partner nations.
Australia’s Pacific “Step-up” launched in 2016 at the Pacific Islands Forum and gained momentum with the release of Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper. New Zealand instituted the Pacific Reset. The United Kingdom has opened new diplomatic posts in Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Japan views Oceania as a component of its Free and Open Indo-Pacific. France has declared its status in the Indo-Pacific, and Indonesia has launched a Pacific aid program. Even countries such as India and the United Arab Emirates have entered the region with a variety of development projects.
In this increasingly crowded Oceania, it is much more difficult for any country to have primacy. New Zealand cited this challenge in its Strategic Intentions: 2018-2022 report: “With the Pacific becoming an increasingly contested strategic space, New Zealand needs to maintain its voice and influence.” Changes in diplomatic recognition do not mean any one country has obtained the upper hand but are indicative of heightened competition in the region more generally.
Why does it matter?
For China, diplomatic recognition matters for both symbolic and practical reasons. Diplomatic recognition of Taiwan is a source of irritation in Beijing, and eliminating any recognition of Taiwan is viewed as positive support for the Chinese Communist Party’s objective of defending national sovereignty. Since high-profile events such as protests in Hong Kong are currently creating serious challenges for China, diplomatic wins — even relatively minor success like those in the Pacific — take on extra significance.
For Taiwan, the fact that only 15 countries now formally recognize the island is disappointing but does not fundamentally change Taiwan’s precarious position. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen used the Solomon Islands announcement to reiterate her concerns about China’s behavior, remarking that “in the face of China’s interference and suppression, we will not stand to be threatened, nor will we be subjected to ceaseless demands.”
For the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, the implications are less clear. Each of the ANZUS countries already had relationships with both Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, so the underlying bilateral ties are unlikely to be fundamentally altered.
What is of more concern is what China may expect from these countries in return. On October 16, the New York Times reported that a Chinese state-owned enterprise leased the island of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. In the late 1990s, China had a satellite tracking station in Kiribati, which was dismantled in the 2000s during Kiribati’s last switch in diplomatic relations. What will Beijing expect this time around?