Following president-elect William Lai’s (賴清德) electoral victory on Jan. 13, Nauru again severed ties with the Republic of China (ROC) to re-establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). While it has not been proven that Beijing orchestrated the termination of diplomatic relations between Taiwan and one of its 13 remaining diplomatic allies, Nauru’s justification for the switch aligns with the Chinese government’s repeated stance on Taiwan’s diplomatic interactions with countries, official and unofficial. It was based on Beijing’s “one China” principle and UN Resolution 2758.
The effects of the termination were multifaceted, with numerous implications. It reinforces Taiwan’s limited international presence and undermines its democracy.
It aimed to sow fear and anxiety on the international stage over Lai’s upcoming presidency, with the intention of dividing the international democratic alliance. Simultaneously, it sought to provide ammunition to US skeptics within Taiwan by demonstrating that Washington could not alter the course of diplomatic turnover in Pacific countries, with the goal of destabilizing Taiwan-US relations and promoting the idea that it is better to lean toward China.
In essence, the switch attempted to make Taiwanese doubt whether their choice in electing Lai would lead to a cross-strait conflict, and whether the US is capable of safeguarding Taiwan’s international standing and national security.
The diplomatic battle between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait has been ongoing since 1949. This competition essentially expanded the Chinese Civil War to the international stage. Beijing and Taipei have been fiercely competing for recognition as the legitimate representative of “China” in diplomatic relations.
Before 1971, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime, which then represented China in the UN, enjoyed a favorable voting record and strong support from diplomatic allies. After Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) was expelled from the global body, the legitimate representation of China shifted overnight to Beijing.
Between 1971 and 1978, the number of ROC diplomatic allies plummeted from 68 to 22. Even Japan and the US ended their recognition of the KMT regime as the legitimate representative of China in 1972 and 1979 respectively.
However, most of the countries that severed diplomatic ties did not address Taiwan’s international status. At most, they acknowledged or expressed no opinion on Beijing’s “one China” principle. During that period, the PRC’s objective was to eliminate the international space of the ROC and minimize international awareness of the cross-strait issue.
Meanwhile, the ruling party of the ROC, the KMT, advocated for unification with China, while holding uninterrupted power in domestic politics until 1999. For both sides, the diplomatic battle between the ROC and PRC was seen as a manifestation of the civil war, as well as a competition for the sole recognition of “China.”
Taipei’s diplomatic approach has changed since 2000, when it experienced its first political transition. From then to 2008, during the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) first tenure in the presidency, Beijing shifted the diplomatic battle from a lingering legacy of the civil war to one that punishes advocating Taiwanese independence.
China viewed former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration as a pro-independence regime. Although Chen explicitly stated in his inaugural speech that he had no intention of declaring formal independence, the Beijing government seized on his “one side, one country” statement in 2002 to pressure Nauru into severing diplomatic ties.
That incident occurred on the same day Chen assumed the chairmanship of the DPP. Since then, Beijing has been engaged in a diplomatic chase with Taipei. During Chen’s eight years in office, nine diplomatic allies severed ties with Taiwan, but it also reclaimed four diplomatic allies from China.
Importantly, Beijing recognized that if both sides of the Strait are competing for representation of “China,” reunification could still be a possibility.
However, if Taipei abandons its pursuit of the “China” representation and chooses an independence path, Beijing would lose its legitimacy to assert sovereignty over Taiwan. This is why, during the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) from 2008 to 2016, when the KMT government advocated the “one China policy with respective interpretations” (the so-called “1992 consensus”) and opposed Taiwanese independence, Beijing rarely launched diplomatic offensives.
Instead, it sent a clear message to Taiwan that if it opposes independence, it would not lose diplomatic allies. Since 2016, when the DPP regained power, the Beijing government has again resorted to its previous tactics to combat Taiwanese independence. As a result, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has lost 10 countries with official diplomatic ties.
However, Beijing’s diplomatic offensive did not occur immediately after the democratic elections. It was not until January that China broke this unspoken agreement.
Two days after Lai was elected president, Nauru cut diplomatic ties with the ROC. The timing of that termination and the establishment of relations with Beijing carries one significant message. It indicates that China is already flexing its muscles against Lai’s incoming administration and the international community.
It is important to note that during the year-long election campaign, Lai never tried to provoke Beijing. He supported the participation of Chinese students in Taiwan in the National Health Insurance system, a source of national pride.
Nevertheless, Beijing responded to Lai’s victory by reducing the number of Chinese exchange students allowed to visit Taiwan. Many countries, including the US, the UK, Japan and the Philippines, have expressed support for Taiwan’s democracy and congratulated Lai on his victory. Conversely, China has refused to accept the results and seeks to undermine democracy by pulling away Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.
To be sure, China’s interference in Taiwan’s elections is ongoing and would continue. There is no better time for countries around the world to take notice of the rationales behind Nauru’s decision to terminate diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Democratic countries’ failure to recognize Beijing’s multilayered intentions might result in setbacks in democratic processes, especially during the intense election season this year.
Taiwan has already witnessed manipulated fake videos questioning the legitimacy of the election on TikTok, which have planted seeds of doubt regarding Taiwan’s cherished democracy within its society. It is crucial for countries worldwide to acknowledge that if China’s undermining of Taiwan’s democracy is not stopped, the international democratic alliance could be at risk.
Lin Tzu-yao holds a master’s degree from National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of National Development, majoring in Chinese studies and cross-strait relations. Cathy Fang is a policy analyst at the Project 2049 Institute.
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