The Nauru government said on Monday that “in the best interests” of the country and its people, it was seeking full resumption of diplomatic relations with China.
Minister for the Pacific Pat Conroy said the decision didn’t take Australia by surprise, after Nauru gave Canberra advanced warning.
“Three Pacific Islands Forum members recognise Taiwan, 13 members recognise the People’s Republic of China [PRC], including Australia, and we’ve got excellent relations with every single Pacific Island nation, including those ones that recognise the PRC,” he said.
“We respect Nauru’s decision.”
Mr Conroy also responded to questions around whether Nauru had asked Australia for any financial support to avoid its decision.
“They had no conversations with us about that particular matter of switching diplomatic recognition, other than giving a heads-up that the decision had been made,” he said.
Despite that, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Senator Simon Birmingham said there were still questions to answer around the Australian government’s interactions with Nauru ahead of the decision, particularly around funding of the Australian immigration detention facility in Nauru.
“It is important that the Albanese government be transparent about any discussions it had on that issue with officials from Nauru and its knowledge of any payments sought or made by China to Nauru,” Senator Birmingham said.
“Whilst it is a decision entirely for Nauru whether it officially recognises Taiwan or not, it is relevant to Australia’s security interests in the Pacific and warrants appropriate disclosure from the Albanese government.”
Analyst says timing of decision ‘no coincidence’
Most countries around the world, including Australia, only have an “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan – instead having official diplomatic ties with China.
The decision from Nauru came just days after a new pro-Taiwanese sovereignty president was elected, and leaves just 12 countries that have official diplomatic ties with the self-governed island, including Guatemala, Paraguay, Eswatini, Palau and the Marshall Islands.
Taiwan’s government accused Beijing of retaliating against the result of its election, claiming China was using money to suppress Taiwan and sway its allies.
Graeme Smith, an expert in China-Pacific relations from the Australian National University, said the timing of Nauru’s announcement was no coincidence.
“Someone was going to be made, shall we say, to pay for what happened in the Taiwanese election,” Dr Smith said.
“It really sends a signal to the Taiwanese public and to Taiwan’s erstwhile allies, that ‘If we want some country to switch, we have the financial means to make them switch out at the time of our choosing’.
“So obviously, it was all lined up in advance.”
But he said Nauru’s decision was somewhat surprising, given Nauru and Taiwan have shared long and deep diplomatic relations, broken only during a short switch from 2003 until 2005.
“Their history with Taiwan is very long and deep,” he said.
“When all of [Nauru’s] other diplomatic partners were failing to step up and give them financial support, Taiwan was the one country that stepped up.”
The diplomatic move will also have broader geopolitical implications across the Pacific, with Nauruan politician Barron Waqa soon to become secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum.
In the past, Mr Waqa has maintained a staunchly pro-Taiwan position.
“It certainly complicates things, given his expressed personal views,” Dr Smith said.
According to Dr Smith, the switch also puts into context Australia’s recently announced security deal with Tuvalu, known as the Falepili agreement.
“Now in this context it makes a bit more sense from a geopolitical point of view, because clearly there was concern that Tuvalu was going to be the next one to switch through to China,” he said.
But Dr Smith said the change in diplomatic ties were unlikely to have a major impact in the day-to-day running of Pacific nations.
“I think, if anything, the effects will be felt more strongly in Taiwan than in the Pacific,” he said.
China claims Taiwan as its own territory with no right to state-to-state ties, a position Taiwan strongly disputes.