U.S. official: Pacific islands nations should maintain Taiwan ties

U.S. official: Pacific islands nations should maintain Taiwan ties

FORUM Staff

Pacific island nations should resist “heavy-handed” pressure from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and maintain their diplomatic relationships with Taiwan, a U.S. official said in May 2019.

  1. Patrick Murphy, U.S. acting assistant secretary for Southeast Asia, pictured, told reporters on a visit to Canberra, Australia, that the PRC is aggressively trying to influence the island nations to drop diplomatic ties with Taiwan by promising economic investment in return. The PRC claims the self-ruled Taiwan is a Chinese territory that shouldn’t enjoy state-to-state diplomatic relations.

“China is changing (the) status quo, and the Pacific is a good example where China is attempting to reduce Taiwan’s diplomatic relations in the region,” Murphy said, according to Reuters. “And that’s kind of heavy-handed.”

Six Pacific island nations offer diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, The Associated Press (AP) reported. Almost all of the 17 countries Taiwan has formal ties with worldwide are small, less-developed nations in Central America and the Pacific.

Since Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, five countries in the region have switched their diplomatic ties from Taiwan to the PRC. The Solomon Islands, where two-thirds of the exports go to China, are weighing the merits of continuing a diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. Experts say the PRC values diplomatic ties with the Pacific islands because their support can be a significant in global forums such as the United Nations.

The PRC’s intervention in these diplomatic decisions, Murphy argued, escalates the possibility of conflict in the Pacific. “It gives rise to tensions by changing the status quo and then the possibility of conflict,” he said, according to AP.

While some security analysts believe the PRC wants to build a deep-water military base in the Pacific, Murphy would not comment on whether he discussed that topic with Australian officials. If the Chinese government militarized the Pacific in that way, he said, it would be as destabilizing as the PRC’s militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea.
“A growing military presence anywhere in the region of a country like China that doesn’t work on a rules-based approach or adhere to international standards is and should be of concern,” Murphy said.

His comments were delivered while the largest Pacific island nation, the Solomon Islands, reviews whether to maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Newly elected Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corp. in early May 2019 that he wouldn’t immediately sever ties with Taiwan but that the relationship was under scrutiny. “Right now the status quo is maintained,” he said. “But it’s something that we will continue to develop; it is not hard and fast and fixed.”

Meanwhile, Taiwan and the PRC are working feverishly to win the influence battle, the Nikkei Asian Review reported.

“China is trying very hard to get them [Solomon Islands] to change sides, and I am sure they would heavily incentivize that swap. But Taiwan is equally eager to have the Solomon Islands remain. It is not standing still and will also be proactive in incentivizing them to remain,” said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific islands program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.

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