The New Pacific Theater: United States versus China

TAIPEI, Taiwan—The sun has set on the final summer of the 2010s, and the season finale has been a crueler than anything Banarama could have thought up in the release of its 1984 hit single. Perhaps Taylor Swift captures the emotions felt in Taiwan’s diplomatic corners. “And I cried like a baby coming home from the bar. Said, ‘I’m fine,’ but it wasn’t true,” Swift uttered in her version of ‘Cruel Summer.’ Here’s Taiwan, about 100 days away from the 2020s, being stiffed with the bill as two of her friends from the South Pacific have ditched the party with a hotter date: China. Is Taiwan, with two fewer allies in its corner, crying in the back seat of car, saying she’s okay when she really isn’t?

Kiribati, in case you missed it, announced she no longer recognizes Taiwan as an independent country. The withdrawal of diplomatic relations came just a few days after the Solomon Islands also abandoned its recognition of an independent Taiwan. Both South Pacific countries are now sharing a diplomatic bed with Beijing.

Kiribati was the second nation in a week to end diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Kiribati was the second nation in a week to end diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

China, of course, views Taiwan as its own. The creation of the Republic of China was not recognized by Peking (as it was known then) when the island-nation separated from the mainland in the 1950s. The People’s Republic of China’s view of Taiwan is, for the most part, shared by more than 90 percent of the world’s governments – the island formerly known as Formosa was, until mid-September, recognized by a little more than one dozen of the nearly 200 recognized countries on Earth.

Kiribati and the Solomon Islands switching allegiances to Beijing not only weakens Taiwan’s already weak standing as an independent country – the moves also solidify China’s strategic geo-political positioning in the South Pacific.

The diplomatic moves of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands might seem like a far-flung action, bearing absolutely no meaning to the everyday person in the United States. How many people could even locate Kiribati or Solomon Islands on a map, let along acknowledge whether they’ve heard of either country in the first place.

One would find the Solomon Islands just east of Papua New Guinea and northeast of Australia. Kiribati, however, is Hawai’i’s closest neighbor. No other South Pacific nation is closer to the United States than Kiribati, mean she bears significant strategic value in the Pacific Ocean Theater.

What happened this past week in the South Pacific and East Asia might be one of the most significant events of the aforementioned Pacific Ocean Theater since World War II and the nuclear testing days of the 1940s and early 1950s. The United States, to be fair, is not one of the 16 remaining countries recognizing Taiwan’s independence, but this is beyond the point. China now has an ally in geographic proximity to the United States – which could have serious repercussions in the dealings between both countries, if one appreciates the role Beijing hopes to play in influencing (disrupting?) the West.

Experts who study China, Taiwan and the South Pacific closely have been providing astute analysis of why Kiribati and the Solomon Islands now back Beijing over Taipei. Strengthening diplomatic ties China, for whatever it’s worth, could translate into an economic windfall for Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. Beijing’s interest in the Solomon Islands’ logging industry, for example, could bring the South Pacific island nation an infusion of cash. What would become of the Solomon Islands’ highly attractive beaches and resort areas once China’s logging interests there picks up in earnest, however, remains to be seen.

A 2011 report published by the International Monetary Fund declared Kiribati as the poorest country in Oceania. The country consistently relies upon foreign assistance. Beijing could use its newfound relationship with Kiribati to ramp up its commercial fishing interests in the South Pacific.

Then there is also the trade war between China and the United States – and Kiribati’s diplomatic shift from Taipei to Beijing could actually be harmful to Washington, D.C., making the archipelago at the western edge of the International Date Line quite the strategic pawn for Chinese President Xi Jinping. The new diplomatic alliance between Kiribati and China, accordingly, can’t be good news for the United States or Taiwan.

There’s also a sense of irony here: Taiwan has been a democracy since the late 1980s. It’s awkward, to say the least, for the United States to NOT recognize an independent Taiwan.

The democracy angle is interesting, particularly with what’s been going on in Hong Kong. Taiwan losing two diplomatic allies means the One-China mandate gains momentum. Beijing hopes to strengthen its grip on Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hong Kong, for example, has mostly operated as a special administrative district since becoming a part of mainland China in 1997. Will the weakening of Taiwan’s diplomatic relations around the world mean its days as an independent democracy are numbered? Whatever happens in the Beijing-Taipei theater will directly affect what happens between Beijing and Hong Kong. The events transpiring this past week in the South Pacific could be the first domino to fall, eventually leading to the end of democracy on two offshore interests China desperately wants to control.

A tit-for-tat geopolitical game of chess is officially underway on the Pacific Rim, and the diplomatic moves of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands doesn’t bode well for the United States.

And in case you are wondering who does recognize Taiwan, here’s a list: Belize, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Nicaragua, Palau, Paraguay, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Tuvalu and Vatican City.