Taiwan's Tsai Ing-wen heads to the South Pacific in a bid to fend off China

Beijing has poached five of Taiwan's diplomatic allies since Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen came to power in 2016.
Beijing has poached five of Taiwan's diplomatic allies since Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen came to power in 2016.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TAIPEI (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen set off on Thursday (March 21) for a trip to the South Pacific to shore up ties with three island nations that still recognise Taiwan as a country, in an effort to offset China's expanding influence in the region.

Only 17 countries recognise Taiwan's government, and among those, Ms Tsai will be visiting Palau, Nauru and the Marshall Islands.

China has been pouring aid and investment into the Pacific islands, raising the question of whether Beijing could strip Taiwan of more of its few remaining diplomatic allies and shrink the self-ruled island's international presence.

Ms Tsai said her visit is to not only improve international collaboration but also expand Taiwan’s international participation. 

“Letting the country advance down the right path, and letting Taiwan continue to shine on the world stage, are all things that must be done as president, and I will go all out,” she told reporters at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.

The Trump administration has sought to push back against China's reach in the South Pacific and Latin America. Australia is also concerned and last year set aside more money in its budget for Pacific aid.

For the small, developing countries that still recognise Taiwan, the primary reason to consider switching recognition to Beijing from Taipei is the aid and investment that China offers.

But potential economic benefits may come at a cost, officials and analysts in Taiwan and the United States have warned.

"Growing Chinese economic influence over time may be translated into political and strategic influence," said Ms Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Commercial investment in a port, for example, could lead to military access, she said. "This is especially of concern in Latin America, a region that the US has long considered its backyard."

US diplomats have argued to Taiwan's allies that relying too heavily on China is risky, Ms Glaser said. They have provided data about debt traps they say China has created elsewhere, she added.

The spokesman for Taiwan's presidential office, Mr Chang Tun-han, would not confirm if aid or investment packages would be announced during Ms Tsai's eight-day trip.

Mr Ross Feingold, a political analyst in Taipei, Taiwan's capital, said that with elections coming up in Nauru and the Marshall Islands this year, Ms Tsai was very likely to pledge assistance of some kind.

Ms Tsai will make a stop in Hawaii on her way back next Wednesday - a transit that could annoy Beijing. The US shifted to recognising China's Communist government in 1979, but still maintains unofficial relations with Taipei.

China considers Taiwan to be part of its territory and has long sought to reduce the number of countries that recognise it. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said at a routine press briefing on Thursday (March 21) that China has lodged stern representations with the US over Tsai’s visit to Hawaii. 

“We have consistently and resolutely opposed the United States or other countries which have diplomatic relations with China arranging this kind of transit,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing.  China urged the United States not to send “Taiwan independence forces any wrong signal”, he added.

Since Ms Tsai came to power in 2016, Beijing has poached five of Taiwan's diplomatic allies. China has also stepped up pressure on the island democracy by increasing its military activities near Taiwanese waters and airspace.

For Taiwan's government, the 17 countries that still officially recognise it are of symbolic importance because they support Taiwan's claim to statehood. The most immediate questions hang over two Pacific island nations that Ms Tsai will not be visiting - Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.

According to Taiwanese news reports, she had initially planned to visit Kiribati on this trip, but the stop was called off because of what officials said were scheduling conflicts.

Last May, initial plans for a visit by Ms Tsai to Burkina Faso were similarly shelved shortly before the country severed ties with Taipei.

Solomon Islands

Although Pacific island states offer little economically to either China and Taiwan, their support is valued in global forums such as the United Nations and as China seeks to isolate Taiwan.

The Solomon Islands is the largest of Taiwan-aligned Pacific countries, with access to airfields and deepwater ports. The Solomons have recognised Taiwan since 1983.

The chain of islands stretching across some 600,000 sq km of ocean is a strategic gateway to the South Pacific and was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in World War II.

Mr Rick Hou, prime minister of the Solomon Islands, has said he will review the relationship with Taiwan if he is re-elected this year.

China has become a major export destination for the Solomon Islands in recent years, primarily driven by unsustainable logging of the country's rainforests.

Many Solomons politicians are questioning whether diplomatic ties with Taiwan are still in their best interests.

"Sooner or later, when we see our country hasn't been able to grow out of this relationship, we are at liberty to review our relations and to explore other avenues," said former prime minister Gordon Darcy Lilo, who is contesting the election.

Mr Lilo's views, echoed in the rival ruling Democratic Alliance Party policy manifesto, and by other candidates, have caught Taipei's attention.

Taiwan this month sent its deputy foreign minister to the tropical capital of Honiara shore up the alliance.

Belt and Road

China is aggressively pumping money into the South Pacific via President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, said Mr Karl Eikenberry, director of the US-Asia Security Initiative at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Centre. The Chinese initiative is a sweeping plan for infrastructure investment to more closely link China with Asia, Africa and Europe.

"A lot of the money that they're investing isn't transparent," Mr Eikenberry said at a news conference at Taiwan's Institute for National Defence and Security Research on Tuesday. "It's corrupting political systems."

"Do they see strategic utility in having a presence in those Pacific island nations?" he said. "The answer is yes."

Late last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke at a gathering of South Pacific nations, including the leaders of the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Palau, praising the countries for their recognition of Taiwan.

"We respect and support the decision those of you have made to continue to support Taiwan," Mr Pompeo said.

Latin America is also a source of worry for Taiwan. Taiwan foreign minister Joseph Wu told journalists last week that China is using its large state-owned construction and engineering companies to approach governments of Taipei's diplomatic allies in Latin America about switching recognition to Beijing.

"All these countries that are not able to finance the projects themselves need to get loans from China - that's debt-trap diplomacy," Mr Wu said.

Mr Wu cited as examples Panama and El Salvador, which normalised relations with China in June 2017 and August last year, respectively.

The Trump administration has stepped into the diplomatic tug-of-war. In September, the State Department recalled its top diplomats from the two countries, as well as the Dominican Republic, which dropped Taiwan for China last May.

El Salvador's ties with China have become a question. Mr Nayib Bukele, the new president-elect, said after a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington this month that he was reviewing his country's relations with Beijing, suggesting that reverting to recognition of Taiwan was a possibility.

Before Mr Bukele was elected last month, his predecessor, Mr Salvador Sánchez Cerén, met Mr Xi and secured US$150 million (S$200 million) in aid from China for 13 projects, the details of which were not made public.

Mr Bukele said Beijing was selling projects to countries that cannot repay the loans that come attached to them.

"They go in, they do projects that are not feasible, then they leave the countries with huge loans they cannot repay and they use as a kind of leverage."

Mr John Bolton, US President Donald Trump's national security adviser, met Mr Bukele during his visit and said the US would work with him to "counter Chinese predatory practices".

Mr Lu Kang, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, told reporters last week that the ties between China and El Salvador "should be cherished by both sides" and that Beijing would work with Mr Bukele to "steer clear of external disturbances".