Protests, massive logging, and the threat of overfished waters all emerged as political and environmental consequences of a small change in foreign policy: In mid-September, two small Pacific island nations, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, switched their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. While this decision may seem small in scale, it demonstrates the Chinese government’s shifts in geopolitical and economic strategy. For China, economic power is a means of gaining political headway and influencing countries to follow its agenda. For the countries themselves, this poses the threat of environmental degradation and feeds into corruption.
Kiribati and the Solomon Islands’s policy shift are a product of China’s new push to consolidate regional power, through the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Rather than political negotiation, China is pursuing economic investments that would stretch from Asia to Europe, including strategic investment in the Pacific Islands. China’s gains in recognition and influence are losses for Taiwan: The two have long competed to be recognized as the “One China”, a battle that started politically but now is intrinsically connected to the economy of both countries.
Since Taiwan’s split from mainland China in 1949, both countries have asserted sovereignty and rightful leadership. Under the “One-China policy”, China insists foreign governments must recognize only the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) instead of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Following the decisions of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, Taiwan holds recognition from only 14 members of the United Nations, which pales in comparison to China’s recognition from 178 countries. Many of these countries recognize Taiwan as a protest against China for their religious policies or because of Taiwan’s relationship with the US.
China is utilizing its vast wealth to push countries to recognize them: China has expanded their spending in the South Pacific to $1.6 billion in aid, which outmatches Taiwan’s investment four times over. This investment strategy gains economic and political power for China, while also marginalizing that of Taiwan. In response to Kiribati’s decision, the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement criticizing “China’s suppression of Taiwan in the international arena” and accusing the Kiribatian president rejecting Taiwan’s loans instead of a donation.
Regionally, the consequences of China’s actions are felt not just by Taiwan, but by the countries where China has expanded its presence in. Their offerings are tied to limited natural resources that China seeks to capitalize on: Kiribati’s fishing waters were valued at over a billion dollars in 2014, and could be integral to meeting China’s heavy demand for seafood. The China Railway Group, partially government controlled, signed a $825 million dollar contract for gold mining on the same day that the Solomon Islands switched its recognition from Taiwan. While increased economic investment could be an asset to the region, it comes at a steep environmental cost. Logging exports to China have caused depletion of Solomon Island forests at over 20 times the sustainable rate. Anger over alleged corruption and the environmental and economic impacts of this Chinese influence inspired violent protests in Solomon Island’s capital Honiara. While the Chinese government has been working on environmental impact domestically, the massive logging imports into the country comes from ethically dubious sources that not meet requirements set by American and EU companies.
These regional power shifts have appeared to be a cause for global concern: The United States, a close ally of Taiwan, sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the South Pacific to lobby island nations. While the Solomon Islands emphasized help from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Taiwan, Beijing said they would have “unprecedented development opportunities after cutting ties with Taiwan.” Following their recognition shift, Vice President Mike Pence canceled a meeting with the Solomon Islands Prime Minister regarding their cooperation with the United States.
The US involvement in this issue is possibly tied to the security threat of a conflict between Taiwan as Chinese influence escalates: In July, China announced its willingness to use military force to assert claims over Taiwan, agreeing to buy $2.2 billion in weapons. Taiwanese President Tsai rejected China’s offers to grant privileges to Taiwan should it agree to reunify with China, placing Taiwan’s government under a similar “one country, two systems” framework. This framework is currently in place in Hong Kong, where it has been heavily scrutinized and resulted in major protests across the city, notably shutting down the international airport.
Overall, China’s calculated actions will have consequences felt first regionally and then globally. Regionally, Taiwan’s diminishing international recognition is a consequence of shifts in power dynamics favoring China. Moreover, the environmental and political impacts to the countries China has expanded influence in could be dire, following a trail of past Chinese influence. As China continues its expansionary initiatives, the potential for conflict with Taiwan may be an impetus for foreign actors such as the US to intervene.
Photo: Image via Kent Huang (Flickr)