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Tuvalu Elects: A Micro Perspective on Shifting Power Dynamics in the Pacific

What is going on?

On February 26, lawmakers in the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu named former Attorney General Feleti Teo the new Prime Minister. As Tuvalu is currently one of only 13 countries maintaining official diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan), this development was watched closely in Taipei. Teo’s pro-Taiwan predecessor, Kausea Natano, lost his seat in the January 26 election. According to the Statement of Priorities for the New Government of Tuvalu disclosed by parliamentarian Simon Kofe, reaffirming Tuvalu-Taiwan ties is cited as one of the new government’s top 20 priorities. At the same time, Pacific Island countries have been a target of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) influence campaigns, which include poaching Taipei’s diplomatic allies – shortly after the January 2024 elections in Taiwan, Nauru switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Consequently, the debate about Taiwan in Funafuti offers a window into the broader story of great power competition in the Pacific.


What is the broader picture?

Out of 13 formal diplomatic allies of the Republic of China (Taiwan), three are Pacific Island countries (PIC): the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Palau. Since President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in 2016, Beijing reignited its quest to poach Taipei’s formal diplomatic allies. Ten countries have switched their allegiances from Taipei to Beijing during Tsai’s tenure, including two PICs in 2019: the Solomon Islands and Kiribati. Merely two days after Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections in January 2024, during which the DPP secured an unprecedented third presidential term, Nauru also broke formal diplomatic ties with Taipei. Beijing deploys “checkbook diplomacy” in countries allied with Taipei, luring them with promises of lucrative economic deals.

The expanding cooperation between the Solomon Islands and the PRC illustrates the strategic importance of PICs for Beijing. Honiara and Beijing set out to deepen their joint projects related to law enforcement and security cooperation. A major concern surrounding these deals is their opaqueness, as the texts have not been released to the public. This has stirred controversy about China’s possible military build-up in the islands, which would complicate transit between Australia and the United States and bring Chinese military firepower closer than ever to Australian and U.S. territory.

Beyond the relations between Funafuti and Taipei, another major issue in the recent Tuvalan elections was the Falepili Union treaty. Addressing security cooperation, human mobility, and the increasing danger of climate crisis, the bilateral treaty between Australia and Tuvalu has been a way for Canberra to veer Funafuti away from Beijing’s reach. While it incorporates provisions for safeguarding Tuvalu and its people, the treaty also gives Australia veto power over any security deal Tuvalu may seek to conclude with other nations. Canberra is overtly concerned about China’s growing security footprint in the Pacific, including the Solomon Islands, as illustrated by the joint statement issued by Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese and his New Zealand counterpart Chris Hipkins after Honiara signed a policing agreement with Beijing. While the new Tuvalan PM Teo helped craft the Falepili Union treaty, the deal was hotly debated in the island country amid concerns that it would limit Tuvalu’s sovereignty.

The Falepili Union treaty is an attempt of the collective West to fill in a power vacuum in the region. During her visit to the Pacific Islands Forum in 2022, US Vice-President Kamala Harris acknowledged this dynamic and said, “We recognize that in recent years, the Pacific islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve.” The EU also has not been very active diplomatically in the Pacific, which can be partially attributed to the delay in concluding the Post-Cotonou Agreement that materialized only in February 2024 as the Samoa Agreement.


Why does it matter?

Xi Jinping (習近平) declared that China should strive to become a “true maritime power” (海洋强國), which is a central pillar of the PRC’s grand national strategy. To realize this goal, China must develop capabilities to transgress the first island chain and project power deep into the Pacific Ocean. Given that the United States has been the dominant power in the region since the end of World War II, Beijing’s expansionism into the Pacific can be understood within the larger context of the US-China rivalry. Therefore, it is imperative that Washington proactively engage with its allies, including Australia and the EU, to engage with PICs to promote development in the spirit of dignity and respecting their sovereignty.

The authorities in Beijing do not view Taiwan’s DPP as a valid interlocutor. With William Lai (賴清德) as President Tsai’s successor, the PRC will continue to deploy its tools of intimidation vis-à-vis Taiwan, including poaching its diplomatic allies. The uncertainty about the future of Funafuti’s ties with Taipei is a reminder of China’s growing ambitions in the Pacific which threaten the interests of the members of the democratic world.