By Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan, at the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru
China’s representative to today’s partner dialogue at the Pacific Islands Forum stormed out of the meeting, after a tense exchange with Forum chair, President Baron Waqa of Nauru.
The incident shocked delegates to the regional meeting, as the Chinese delegation sought unsuccessfully to address the session on climate change.
Problems had been brewing in past days, after Nauru – a country that maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan rather than the People’s Republic.– had delayed visas for China’s official delegation to attend this year’s Pacific Islands Forum.
In the days leading to this week’s meeting, Nauru came under pressure from other Forum island countries that have close economic and political ties with China, to resolve the visa problem. Outgoing Forum chair, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi of Samoa, prepared a strongly worded letter sent to the host government, calling for visas to be granted. Other countries such as Fiji, whose delegation arrived later than scheduled, also sent diplomatic signals of displeasure.
On Monday night, the eve of the official dialogue between Forum members and Forum “dialogue partners”, the Forum host told journalists that the problem was resolved.
President of Nauru Baron Waqa said: “I think there was some misunderstanding regarding the delegation. It so happens that Nauru has no diplomatic relations with China. We have a reciprocal arrangement which has been there for a long, long time where they expect us to travel on our ordinary passports.
“Ministers attending even multilateral meetings in China aren’t issued visas, but are expected to travel on ordinary passports”, he said. “So the reciprocal arrangement is that they too, when they travel here, travel on ordinary passports. That’s quite normal. They too know that. But we’ve allowed them to come and we’ve issued them a visa.”
Despite this, delegates described tense discussions in Tuesday morning’s official session between Forum member countries and the 18 official Forum dialogue partners (these countries include key donors such as the United States, China, EU, India and France, as well as less influential players like Thailand, Turkey and Italy)..
In contrast, Taiwan is not given the same dialogue status. Most years, the government of Taiwan hosts a meeting or dinner away from the official Forum site for its six island partners: Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. It gets complicated, however, when the Forum meeting is held in a conference centre built by Taiwan!
At the 2013 Forum in Marshall Islands, there was a tense diplomatic dance as Chinese diplomats refused to walk past a plaque at the entrance of the conference centre in Majuro, which features a giant Taiwanese flag. Over the space of a few days, harried officials covered up the flag, then ripped down the covering in an awkward dance to keep both sides happy (In the end, China’s delegation entered the venue through a rear door to attend the dialogue!)
This year, the Forum meeting is hosted in the newly refurbished Nauru Civic Centre. The “Republic of China Taiwan” embassy to Nauru is located in the building, about 30 metres from where Forum delegates are meeting. The Taiwanese ambassador even has his own sign-posted car space in front of the building.
Australia is Nauru's most significant donor, providing overseas aid and grants amounting to 25 per cent of Nauru's gross domestic product in 2016–17. But Taiwan is also a valued donor, and you can see government vehicles driving through the streets emblazoned with “Love from Taiwan.”
Recently, Taiwan has become embroiled in the asylum seeker debate. Australian governments have long resisted bringing asylum seekers and refugees to Australia for specialised medical and psychiatric treatment, where they have access to greater legal rights. Now, the Australian and Nauruan governments have arranged to transport some patients to Taiwan for medical treatment that cannot be provided on island. Because Taiwan is not a UN member or a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, core aspects of international refugee law are denied during their stay.
At a time it is losing friends around the world, Taiwan is actively seeking to shore up its support in the Pacific region. Last November, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, seeking to expand aid programs and avoid any country flipping support to China.
However the people of Taiwan do not always endorse their government’s overseas largesse. Writing in The Interpreter last December, Taiwanese academic Kwei-Bo Huang reported that: “Surveys show the Taiwanese public has reservations. Most believe aid to Pacific nations and Taiwan's allies is a waste. In Taiwan, unfortunately, the South Pacific allies have often been portrayed as 'poor, small, and black' countries coveting Taiwan's money.”
In the early 1990s, 30 countries recognised Taipei over Beijing, but that number has nearly halved. Panama and Sao Tome and Principe have recently cut diplomatic ties. In Europe, only the Holy See recognises Taiwan. Most support comes from small island states in the Caribbean and Pacific.
China’s booming tourism has become a key tool in the diplomatic battle. Earlier this year, the Australian airline Qantas changed its flight designations, after an "oversight" listed Taiwan and Hong Kong, as countries rather than Chinese-claimed territories
Palau has come under significant lobbying to shift its diplomatic relationship from Taiwan to China. In November last year, Beijing instructed its tourist agencies to halt flights to the Micronesian nation, which relies heavily on tourism from across Asia. China grants countries with “Approved Destination Status” for tourism – a vital designation for countries in the Pacific seeking to tap the Chinese market. In 2015, 87,000 Chinese tourists visited Palau. By the end of last year, numbers had dropped to around 58,000, a significant hit to local hotels.
Across Micronesia, there is a patchwork of relationships – Marshall Islands and Palau recognise Taiwan, while Federated States of Micronesia has diplomatic relations with China. Nauru’s relationship with Taiwan has not always been rusted on, as Yaren briefly recognised China between 2002 and 2005.
Keeping the Forum a Pacific space
For the Forum Secretariat, the ongoing China-Taiwan jousting diverts energy and attention from the region’s core priorities on climate, oceans, security and development.
Before the meeting, Islands Business asked Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor about China-Taiwan tensions. She responded with obvious frustration.
“The China-Taiwan stuff has been coming up since before I arrived,” she said. “The issue that I would like to see is that the Pacific Islands Forum can protect this space for discussion of the issues that are important to the leaders of the Pacific, raised by the Pacific countries.”
She added: “This constant to-ing and fro-ing about Taiwan and China is a constant distraction. I think that there will be a discussion at the leaders meeting on this, in terms of how development partners are treated across the board. There’s a need for a political settlement for the future.”
Time is short for this discussion. Tuvalu – one of the smaller island states aligned with Taiwan – is next year’s host of the Forum leaders meeting. It’s another very small space for the major powers to throw their weight around.