Taiwan lashed out at China on Friday after the tiny island nation of Kiribati switched its recognition to Beijing, the second diplomatic defection in the strategically important Pacific in less than a week.
The move is another coup for Beijing just weeks before it celebrates the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
It comes four days after the Solomon Islands made the same decision, and leaves Taiwan more isolated than ever with just 15 states left that recognise it.
At a hastily arranged press conference, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said Kiribati’s decision was a “mistake”, adding that the country of just over 100,000 people had “given up a sincere friend and chosen to be China’s chess piece”.
Taiwan has been a de facto sovereign nation since the end of a civil war in 1949, but China still views the island as its territory and has vowed to seize it, by force if necessary.
Over the decades, as China’s economic and military power has grown, most countries — including the United States and most Western nations — have switched recognition to Beijing.
In the last decade, only a handful — largely impoverished countries in Latin America and the Pacific — have remained loyal to Taiwan. The only European state to still recognise Taiwan is the Vatican.
Beijing stepped up its campaign to diplomatically isolate Taiwan after Tsai’s 2016 election because she hails from a party that refuses to recognise the idea that the island is part of “one China”.
On Friday, Tsai said more suppression from China was expected with fewer than 100 days to go until Taiwan’s January elections.
“They (China) have only one goal, that is to sway the outcome of the presidential election,” she said.
Earlier that day, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu announced that Taipei would immediately withdraw its diplomats and expected Kiribati to do the same.
He said Beijing had “lured Kiribati to change its diplomatic ties” with promises of investment and aid.
– Taiwan elections looming –
Beijing praised Kiribati for cutting ties with Taiwan, saying it “highly appreciates the decision to resume diplomatic relations with China”.
Seven states have now made the switch during Tsai’s tenure, during which China has also ramped up military drills and squeezed the island economically.
The small African nation of Sao Tome and Principe was the first to fall in late 2016, followed by Burkina Faso and then three Latin American states: Panama, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
Then on Monday came the Solomons, which had been deciding for months whether to make the move following the April election of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.
Taiwan heads to the polls in January, with Tsai seeking a second term and relations with China dominating the campaign.
She has described the vote as a “fight for freedom and democracy”, setting herself up as someone who can defend Taiwan from an increasingly assertive Beijing.
Her main challenger, Han Kuo-yu, from the opposition Kuomintang party, favours rebooting the relationship with the island’s giant neighbour.
“Timing is a factor here,” Alexander Huang, a professor of international relations at Taipei’s Tamkang University, told AFP, saying the upcoming 70th anniversary celebrations and the looming elections had pushed Beijing to pursue fresh defections in the Pacific.
With voters heading to the polls within months, he said, “Taiwanese should think really hard about cross-strait relations with China. Do we want to continue with this hostility… or do we need to make adjustments?”
But J Michael Cole, a Taipei-based expert with the University of Nottingham, said Taiwan has largely shrugged off the loss of diplomatic allies in recent years, knowing it cannot compete in chequebook diplomacy.
“The hoped-for psychological impact on the Taiwanese population has been diminishing with every ally stolen and as Taiwanese realise that in the end, it’s the large, democratic and influential countries — like the US, Japan, Germany — along with a number of middle powers, that truly matter to Taiwan’s survival,” he said.
“Taiwan has made substantial progress deepening ties with those, and this, in my opinion, has more than counterbalanced the loss of small, investment and aid-hungry states as official diplomatic allies.”