Why Taiwan and China are Battling over Tiny Island Countries - Explained

The People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, more commonly known as Taiwan, have fought their territorial dispute for generations, but now, nearly each and every one of the tiny nations dotting the Pacific Ocean has emerged as a battlefield for this conflict.

Friday, July 3, 2020

/ by Avishek Bera

Why Taiwan and China are Battling over Tiny Island Countries

Why Taiwan and China are Battling over Tiny Island Countries

The News Cover: The People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, more commonly known as Taiwan, have fought their territorial dispute for generations, but now, nearly each and every one of the tiny nations dotting the Pacific Ocean has emerged as a battlefield for this conflict. 

The weapons of this war are not guns and bullets, but rather concrete and banknotes. This is a diplomatic mission aiming to shore up the support of some of the world’s smallest countries. There are fourteen nations in question here: Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Solomon Islands, Nauru, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, Fiji, Tuvalu, Tonga, Kiribati, Samoa, Niue, and the Cook Islands. 

With the exception of Papua New Guinea, each of these have populations below one million and each also tends to have fairly low GDP per capita’s—generally between one and five thousand dollars. This means that they’re each granted fairly significant amounts of foreign aid. In the previous decade, Niue, for example, received $134 million in aid, or about $83,000 for each member of its population. 
Region-wide that average is only in the low-thousands, but the point is that the Pacific gets a lot of aid. Now, most of this does not come from Taiwan or China. Australia is by far the largest donor. It is important for Australia to be in these countries’ good graces for strategic reasons. For example, 6% of Australia’s GDP is made up solely of exports that take one of these three maritime routes—each of which passes by some of these Pacific countries. 

These trade routes could be disrupted if there were instability in the Pacific. Political stability also keeps foreign powers from attempting a power-grab in any of these nations, and any such power-grab would likely be too close for comfort for Australia. So, the primary aid motivation for Australia and its close allies, like New Zealand and the US, is stability. That is not the primary motivation for China and Taiwan. These two powers are openly engaging in what's known as "checkbook diplomacy.” They're buying diplomatic partners through financial aid, but why? China is a massive nation of more than a billion people. 

What benefit does it receive from having tiny nations like Samoa, Tonga, or Fiji on its side? Well, they might gain some limited benefit, but the main reason China works to build these diplomatic partnerships is so Taiwan can not. That’s because, to Taiwan, even a tiny, eleven-thousand person nation like Tuvalu is hugely valuable as Tuvalu has something Taiwan doesn’t. 

Tuvalu is a member of the United Nations. Taiwan is rarely recognized as an independent country in international settings. This is despite the fact that, in almost every way, it acts and operates as an independent country would. There are plenty of countries, like the US, for example, that have strong relations with Taiwan and treat it as if it were a country. 

The US has a de-facto embassy in Taiwan, recognizes Taiwanese passports, sells military supplies to Taiwan, and has an enormously strong trade relationship with Taiwan, yet it does not recognize Taiwan as a country. That’s because, in international relations, there is an implicit rule: you either recognize the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China. 

Now, given the choice between working with the world’s most populous country or a moderately-sized island of 24 million, nearly every nation picks China. Even though Taiwan and the US are functionally allies while China and the US are frenemies, at best, it’s just not worthwhile for the US to recognize Taiwan as a country. 

This is the case for almost every country—that is, of course, unless Taiwan makes it worthwhile. Across the Pacific, Taiwan has been funding projects to keep small nations on its side. In Palau, they spent $1.3 million to help the country recover from Typhoon Haiyan. 
In Papua New Guinea, they spent $4.5 million to improve domestic agriculture in order to increase food security. In the Solomon Islands, they spent $2.5 million to train local staff and conduct a survey of the islands’ local plant species. In Nauru, they spent $600 thousand donating more-efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs to local households. 

In the Marshall Islands, they spent $1 million building a seawall around Majuro Atoll to protect it from rising sea-levels. In Fiji, they spent $300 thousand improving mental health service access around the country. In Tuvalu, they spent $200 thousand repairing and improving water storage equipment around the country after a cyclone. In Kiribati, they spent $19 million to repair and upgrade the country’s main airport. Each of these projects, and the hundreds more funded by Taiwan around the pacific, improves its relations with these countries, and therefore brings it more and more diplomatic clout. 

Taiwan can’t afford to buy the support of large nations, but in some settings the size of the nation doesn’t matter. In the United Nations General Assembly, for example, it’s one country, one vote. It doesn’t matter if it’s Tuvalu or China, when voting, every member nation has the exact same power. 

There are other systems in the UN where power is more balanced based on population, but overall, the world’s smallest nations have a disproportionate amount of power. More recognition, even by the smallest countries, strengthens Taiwan’s case for a position in intergovernmental organizations like the UN. That’s why Taiwan targets small nations for support. 

$5 million spent on Tuvalu goes a lot further than $5 million spent on Mexico, for example, but in the General Assembly, Tuvalu can help Taiwan just as much as Mexico can. This diplomatic clout that Taiwan has amassed, though, gets in the way of China’s ambition of eventually unifying the two. 
It is for that reason that the People’s Republic has gone on the offensive. China has been courting Taiwan’s diplomatic partners in the Pacific with promises of larger aid packages. The most recent two defectors were Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. Early in the 2010’s China provided no foreign aid to either of these countries, but then, as soon as they each revoked their recognition of Taiwan, promises of planes, ferries, medical supplies, and more started pouring in from China. 

In addition to these two countries, Taiwan has lost diplomatic support from the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Panama, and São Tomé and Príncipe since 2016. That leaves them with just fifteen total diplomatic partners, and only four in the Pacific region. To maintain the limited support that it has, Taiwan has had to get tactical. 

China’s style with aid is to build big, flashy, expensive infrastructure projects. In Fiji, they spent $50 million building a paved road that halved the time it took for local farmers to get to markets, but local engineers reportedly said that a far lower-quality and cheaper road could have achieved the same result. 

In Vanuatu, they spent $80 million upgrading a port to allow for larger cruise ships to dock, but in all of 2019, for example, just five visited. In Papua New Guinea, they spent $1 million building a malaria hospital in the capital of Port Moresby, despite that being the region of the country with the least malaria, and despite the capital having no road link to the regions with the worst malaria outbreaks. 

Each of these projects and more clearly have positive effects, but undoubtably they are not the most efficient uses of $1 or $50 or $80 million in the mission of improving relations between China and these Pacific nations. China does big, flashy, and sometimes ineffective aid. Taiwan does small, personable, and generally more effective aid. 
That’s why they have been able to maintain the relationships they have for so long, despite a much lower budget. China works to impress the governments, Taiwan works to impress the people. Taiwan’s average aid project size in the Pacific is $500,000. China’s is $6 million. 

Taiwan does things like contribute $1,600 for Palau’s baseball team to attend a tournament in Guam, or spend $200,000 buying a boat for an outer atoll in the Marshall Islands, or construct $300,000 of solar street lights in Nauru. The $80 million port in Vanuatu might help people more than the $1,600 for the baseball team in Palau, but one can be sure that every member of that team and their families and friends heard about and remember how Taiwan helped them. 

That’s less likely with the large, somewhat ineffective port. Taiwan knows that the choice of which side to support is a political issue in the Pacific because there is that choice. Pretty much any politician in these countries will run their campaign with the Taiwan issue as part of their platform and so Taiwan is trying to gain the support of everyday people. 

They want to win support from the ground-up, rather than from the top-down. This might create a better value for their money, but at the end of the day, China just has so much more money. If China wants to win the political support of a small nation, they can just spend and spend and spend. At this point, Taiwan’s few, tiny diplomatic partners are no longer a threat to China’s goal of reunification. 

China will likely keep courting these nations, not because they need to, but because it’ll further weaken Taiwan. Eventually, though, if there comes a day when the Taiwan issue is resolved, either through reunification or recognized independence, the Pacific islands will be victims because, when it's no longer useful, the pawn is the first to be sacrificed. If you want to learn more about one of the four Pacific-island nations that are still on Taiwan’s side, the Marshall Islands, you can watch the Nebula-exclusive documentary we filmed on location in the Marshall Islands. 
You heard earlier that Taiwan funded a seawall for the capital, Majuro, but The Final Years of Majuro explains why that was necessary, and what it means for the nation. It explains what life is like in a nation with an expiration date. The best way to get access to that is to sign up for CuriosityStream’s Nebula bundle deal. Curiosity Stream is, of course, home to thousands of documentaries that any Wendover viewer will enjoy, and Nebula is home to all of Wendover’s normal videos early and ad-free, plus special, exclusive projects like this documentary.

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