Marshall Islands reaffirms ties with Taiwan in wake of Nauru shift

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President Hilda Heine being sworn in
President Hilda Heine being sworn into office earlier this month . . . looking forward to working closely with Taiwan. Image: Marshall Islands Journal

By Giff Johnson, editor of the Marshall Islands Journal and RNZ Pacific correspondent

Marshall Islands officials quickly moved this week to reaffirm this nation’s ties with Taipei in the wake of Nauru shifting diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China.

“The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) values the strong relationship with Republic of China (Taiwan) as an indispensable partner in promotion of democratic principles,” said Foreign Minister Kalani Kaneko.

“The RMI pledges its diplomatic allegiance with Taiwan and will continue to stand in solidarity with the government and people of Taiwan.”

President Hilda Heine quickly congratulated President-elect Lai Ching-te after his win in Taiwan’s presidential election last Saturday, adding that the Marshall Islands “looks forward to working closely with the Republic of China (Taiwan) to further strengthen the close and friendly ties between the two nations”.

Just two days after Lai’s election victory, Nauru announced its change to China — the latest development in the tit-for-tat between Taipei and Beijing, which views Taiwan as a renegade province that needs to be reunited with the mainland.

The mayors of the two largest local governments, in the capital Majuro and at Kwajalein, which hosts the US Army’s Reagan Test Site, took out full-page advertisements in the weekly Marshall Islands Journal supporting Taiwan.

Both local governments have benefited significantly from partnerships with Taiwan that have funded the building of numerous community sports facilities, installation of solar lighting, and purchase of equipment for maintenance of facilities.

Friendship ‘remains strong’
The “Marshall Islands-Republic of China (Taiwan) friendship remains strong and will continue to withstand the test of time,” Kaneko said.

“In parallel, we wholeheartedly respect the sovereignty of all countries and will continue to foster open and friendly dialogue with other nations for the sake of peace and stability for all.”

Kaneko said he wanted to reassure the dozens of Marshall Islands students currently attending universities in Taiwan “that the Nauru-ROC relationship change will not affect their current immigration status while in Taiwan.”

While Taiwan voters sent Beijing a message last Saturday by giving the ruling Democratic Progressive Party an unprecedented third four-year term by electing Lai, whose party and candidacy China had opposed, on Monday, China struck back, with the announcement by Nauru that it was dropping diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognising China instead.

This development leaves only the Marshall Islands, Palau and Tuvalu as Taiwan allies in the Pacific, and reduces the total globally to 12 that recognise Taiwan.

Recently elected Nauru President David Adeang’s government issued a statement on Monday saying that Nauru was “moving to the One-China Principle…which recognises the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government representing the whole of China.”

“This is a big win for China,” wrote Cleo Paskal, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies who regularly writes on US-China issues in the Pacific, on X (formerly Twitter) on Tuesday.

She commented that one of the implications of Nauru’s switch is that now the incoming secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum will be from a China-aligned nation, not Taiwan.

‘A real problem for Beijing’
“Apart from the myriad other implications, the announced next Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum was to be former Nauru President Baron Waqa, who has stood up to China in the past and, at the time of his selection, was from a country that recognised Taiwan — two things that were a real problem for Beijing,” Paskal said on X.

“This change means that, at least, the next Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General will be from a country that recognises China rather than Taiwan. Now let’s see if it stays Baron Waqa.”

American Samoa Congresswoman Amata Radewagen congratulated the new Taiwan president and said in a statement issued by her office Wednesday.

“I’m confident that by far most leadership throughout the Pacific Islands fully supports a strong US commitment in the region and appreciates Taiwan’s role in our many economic and security partnerships that provide enduring regional stability, peace and prosperity.”

She also pointed out that people in the islands “value and support the right to self-determination and democratic elections, for themselves and their neighbours” — an unsubtle dig at China, a dictatorship run by the Chinese Communist Party without national elections.

“The Pacific Islands have a widespread desire to stand with the US and our key allies, which includes our friendship to the people of Taiwan.

I am certain that the decision by Nauru did not take our professional diplomats by surprise and will be an exception in the Pacific Islands,” she added.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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