Nauru Trades Taiwan Ties for China Days After Lai Election

Nauru Trades Taiwan Ties for China Days After Lai Election
Former Nauru President Nauru Baron Waqa and President Tsai Ing-wen in 2017 (Office of the President, ROC)

The Lede: On Monday, the Pacific island nation of Nauru announced that it would be abandoning diplomatic ties with Taiwan and shifting official recognition to China. This follows Taiwan’s latest presidential election over the weekend where the island’s pro-independence leaning party won for an unprecedented third term. 

What We Know:

  • The government of Nauru emphasized that the government in Beijing legally represents the whole of China and that Taiwan would no longer be recognized as a separate country, but rather an inalienable part of Chinese territory. The move reduces the number of countries with formal ties to Taiwan to 12. 
  • Officials in Taiwan have called the timing of Nauru’s move a signal of disapproval bought off by Beijing due to the proximity to the latest presidential election. Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs said that there is only $237,000 of annual bilateral trade between Taiwan and Nauru so the end of the diplomatic relations will have minimal impact.
  • While Australia was notified in advance of the switch in diplomatic ties, it is unclear and unconfirmed whether or not the U.S. was informed. 

The Background: Most countries that formally recognize Taiwan as a country are a handful of small nations in Oceania, Latin America and the Caribbean, and one in Africa. Nauru's move adds it to the list of 10 countries that have cut formal relations with Taipei since the start of President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration in 2016. On the weekend before Nauru’s announcement, Lai Ching-te of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) defeated his opponents to become the next president in Taipei. China expressed dissatisfaction with the results of the election as it favored Lai’s rival candidates for their more amicable positions on cross-strait relations amid stronger signals from Beijing on reunification. Taipei recently declined Nauru’s demands for economic assistance.

Likely Outcomes:

  • This move is a blow to Taiwan as Taipei has tried to maintain its ties among the small countries in Oceania. It probably also stings for the U.S. as the Biden administration made commitments for economic and military support for countries in the region. The Trump administration had also floated agreements to draw Nauru into a framework with Tuvalu and Kiribati to help these countries 'resist Chinese coercion,' but that did not materialize. While there is some strategic value in these ties, the U.S. and Western-aligned countries likely prioritize other segments of the Indo-Pacific ahead of the small islands in Oceania in the competition with China. 
  • In November, former president of Nauru Baron Waqa became the secretary-general of the Pacific Island Forum. The position, coupled with the country’s shift of diplomatic ties, could be a foot in the door for Beijing to influence the regional grouping. This not only gives Beijing an edge to erode Taiwan’s floundering influence in one of the only regions that it has diplomatic ties left, but it also presents an opportunity for China to make progress where Washington has reduced its focus as it has prioritized ties through AUKUS and trilateral relations with Japan and South Korea. 


"China chose this critical moment to bluntly hit Taiwan's democracy.... This shows the arrogance of authoritarian communist China and its bullying against the freedom and democracy of Taiwan." – Tien Chung-kwang, Deputy Foreign Minister of Taiwan

“The PRC gets a real win-win out of this — they get a switch in recognition, they will have a much deeper relationship with Nauru, and probably establish an embassy there, which runs counter to what we’re trying to do, which is be the partner of choice with the Pacific Island community.” – John T. Hennessey-Niland, former U.S. ambassador to Palau and current professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University

"That's obviously just to remind Taiwan that whatever the result of the election, China has the power to continue to isolate Taiwan." – Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute

Good Reads:

Nauru cuts diplomatic ties with Taiwan after Lai election win (Nikkei)

Nauru’s Beijing embrace a blow to Biden (Politico)