On Sept. 16, the Solomon Islands, which had enjoyed 36 years of diplomatic relations with Taiwan, broke off ties in favor of recognizing China. Four days later, Kiribati, another Pacific state, also announced it would be switching diplomatic relations to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
These are far from isolated cases. Over the past three years, China has induced – through outright bribery, false promises, and debt-trap diplomacy – the switch of six of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. Taiwan has now been left with just 15 countries with formal diplomatic recognition. Rather than become more circumspect in the backdrop of the US-China trade war, their slowing economy, and growing international criticism against its human rights record, China’s ambitions in the Pacific have only grown in recent years.
China’s recent actions threaten Taiwan’s hard won democracy. With Taiwan’s national elections less than four months away, Beijing is engaged in a well-documented electoral influence campaign using disinformation, economic disincentives, and pressure against Taiwan’s international space, which include the two diplomatic switches in the Pacific. This is consistent with their efforts over the past three years, which have been to close off official channels of communication, lock Taiwan out of international organizations, and send fighter planes barreling across the center line of the Taiwan Strait. None of these have been conducive to cross-strait peace and stability.
But as evidenced by the cases of the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, China’s actions pose an even more alarming threat to security in the broader Indo-Pacific region. Taiwan, together with the United States and other like-minded countries, share a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific based on democratic norms, respect for sovereignty, and fair trading practices. This is fundamentally incompatible with the Chinese communist regime.
For example, in order to achieve in the two diplomatic switches, China offered opaque infrastructure commitments without regard for sustainability or existing debt levels. As the State Department recently stated: “Countries that establish closer ties to China primarily out of the hope or expectation that such a step will stimulate economic growth and infrastructure development often find themselves worse off in the long run.” It has also been reported that China also offered enticements for individual politicians to secure their support. All of this is contrary to the best interests of the people in the two countries, which have in many cases expressed their opposition to China’s actions. The Solomon Islands’ Central Bank has warned that accepting such loans from Beijing could lead the country into a debt trap.
Rising Chinese influence in the Pacific will also feed into concerns that China intends to militarize the Pacific, potentially placing in jeopardy U.S. and Australian security interests there. China has already militarized the South China Sea, contrary to a promise made by President Xi Jinping in 2015. The international press has reported on China’s desire to establish a naval base close to Australia’s shores. The fact that China used to operate a satellite tracking station in Kiribati will further exasperate those concerns. A Chinese armed presence in the Pacific will be even more of a direct threat to all free and democratic countries in the region. The like-minded countries need to wake up to the alarm to prevent the Pacific from becoming another South China Sea, militarized and dominated by China.
The best way we can avoid that scenario is for all responsible stakeholders in the region to see value in Taiwan’s presence in the Pacific, and pushback strongly against China’s efforts to erode that presence.
Thankfully, the United States Congress has taken a leading role in supporting Taiwan’s standing on the international stage. Last week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations unanimously passed the bipartisan Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, which will strengthen the U.S. policy options to counter increased Chinese pressure and bullying tactics intended to restrict Taiwan’s international space and global diplomatic recognition.
This bipartisan legislation — along with efforts such as the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act that was signed into law in December 2018 — send a strong message around the world that the United States remains committed to deterring Chinese actions that undermine Taiwan.
Taiwan, the U.S., and other democratic actors share similar interests in ensuring that the Pacific remains open and free, and that we uphold the existing regional order that has sustained peace and stability over past decades; it’s time we start working together to act on those interests. There’s not a moment to lose.
Gardner is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee On East Asia, The Pacific, And International Cybersecurity Policy. Joseph Wu is Foreign Minister of Taiwan.