Just two days after Taiwan elected as its next leader Lai Ching-te, whom Beijing sees as a staunch separatist, it lost a diplomatic ally in its rivalry with China. Nauru, a tiny freckle of land in the Pacific Ocean, announced that it would be severing diplomatic relations with Taiwan, effective immediately.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it welcomed the decision by Nauru and is ready to establish relations with it. Taiwan’s foreign ministry indicated that it had no doubt that Beijing had orchestrated the Pacific island’s shift, stating that “China has been actively courting Nauru’s political leaders for a long time, and using economic inducements to bring about a change of direction in the country’s diplomacy.”
A Taiwanese deputy foreign minister, Tien Chung-kwang, told a briefing in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, that China had orchestrated Nauru’s severing of relations to happen in the immediate wake of Taiwan’s election on the weekend.
“The intent is to strike a blow against the democracy and freedom of which the Taiwanese people are so proud,” Mr. Tien said. He said Taiwan had pre-emptively severed relations with Nauru after learning of its impending shift in loyalties.
Such moves from Beijing have been widely expected in Taiwan in the wake of the victory for Mr. Lai, whose Democratic Progressive Party has campaigned on policies to distance the self-governing island democracy from China. Beijing claims Taiwan is its territory, and Chinese officials harbor a particular dislike for Mr. Lai, whom they call a pro-independence threat. Mr. Lai has said he wants to protect Taiwan’s current status as a de facto independent democracy.
Nauru is the latest small nations to abruptly break relations with Taiwan, joining such countries as Honduras and Nicaragua in switching diplomatic allegiance to China. And it is one of a growing number of Pacific island nations that China has aggressively courted in its bid to dominate the region.
In a statement accompanied by a national address that was broadcast on radio and television, President David Adeang of Nauru announced that the country would no longer recognize Taiwan as a nation in its own right, “but rather as an inalienable part of China’s territory, and will sever ‘diplomatic relations’ with Taiwan as of this day.”
He added: “This change is in no way intended to affect our existing warm relationships with other countries.”
The move leaves Taiwan, a de facto independent democracy, with just 12 diplomatic relationships, mostly with smaller nations such as Eswatini, Guatemala, the Marshall Islands, Palau and Paraguay. At the start of 2017, it had ties with 21 states.
Voters in Taiwan on Saturday once again handed the presidency to the Democratic Progressive Party. Mr. Lai, its candidate and the country’s current vice president, pledged his commitment to defending Taiwan’s identity — including from Beijing’s ever-louder saber rattling. The Chinese Communist Party had repeatedly stressed that a vote for the Democratic Progressive Party was a vote for war.
“Between democracy and authoritarianism, we choose to stand on the side of democracy,” Mr. Lai said at the time. “This is what this election campaign means to the world.”
Rumors of Nauru shifting diplomatic ties had been swirling for some time, said Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand.
“The timing is not a coincidence,” she said. “The announcement was orchestrated in such a way as to undermine Taiwan and to demonstrate that China has been successful in dismantling Taiwan’s network of allies in the Pacific.”
As a nation with around 13,000 citizens and a gross domestic product of just $133.2 million a year, Nauru is nonetheless valuable to Beijing for its location, its support of deep sea mining and its vote at the United Nations.
“China is increasingly seeking to shape the international narrative, with respect to its activities in Xinjiang, in Hong Kong and in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits,” Dr. Powles said. “So this is where Nauru would be an effective ally.”
China’s move to lure away one of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic partners exposed a weakness in the island’s political system, said Kuo Yu-jen, a political science professor at National Sun Yat-sen University in southern Taiwan. Mr. Lai will not assume the presidency until May, giving China plenty of time to pressure the incoming administration.
“China can exploit this transition period between Taiwanese administrations to deliver vigorous blows against Taiwan — diplomatically, militarily and economically,” Professor Kuo said.