TOKYO/TAIPEI -- Despite not being invited, Taiwan was a key player at the eighth Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting, as it engages in a tug of war with China over allies in the Pacific.
The two-day forum, which concluded Saturday in the northern Japanese city of Iwaki, brought together the leaders of 16 Pacific island nations and territories, as well as Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Of the 16, China has diplomatic relations with eight, Taiwan, six. French Polynesia and New Caledonia are French territories and thus do not have direct diplomatic ties with either.
Worldwide, Taiwan is recognized by just 19 countries, about a third of which are Pacific island nations.
Since Tsai Ing-wen, who leads the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, became president of Taiwan two years ago, China has ratcheted up the pressure on the island, seeking to force it off the diplomatic stage. The effort is producing results: The West African nation of Sao Tome and Principe, as well as Panama and the Dominican Republic in Central America, have recently switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
Japan, meanwhile, is trying to keep Taiwan in the game despite not maintaining diplomatic relations with the island itself.
Taiwan is at the confluence of East Asia and the South China Sea. It sits astride shipping lanes leading to the Indian Ocean and beyond. For Japan, the island acts as a bulwark against Chinese maritime advances. If China succeeds in cutting Taiwan off strategically, it could redirect its military assets further north, making life difficult for Tokyo.
The Japanese government is concerned at the prospect of Chinese meddling in presidential and other elections over the next two years or so in the six Pacific island nations that have formal ties with Taiwan. Tokyo fears that China may push these countries to cut ties with Taiwan in exchange for promises of assistance, seizing the opportunity offered by changes in regional governments.
Such fretting is understandable. Nauru in 2002 switched recognition to Beijing before reversing course three years later. Tonga did the same in 1998, permanently.
China is stepping up its diplomatic activity in the Pacific. Local media in Palau recently reported that China has banned group tours to the country, apparently to pressure it into severing ties with Taiwan. Palau is situated along China's "second island chain," a strategic defense line between the Izu island chain and Guam that China sees as vital if it is to forestall the possibility of U.S. intervention in Taiwan. An Australian newspaper reported in April that China plans to build a military base in Vanuatu.
Taiwan, which is wary of China extending its reach further into the Pacific, has pinned its hopes on Japan, which it sees as a democratic partner in the region. A DPP official recently welcomed Japan's efforts to woo Pacific island nations.
In February, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe posted a handwritten message in Chinese on a social media site that said, "Hang in there, Taiwan." In response, Tsai tweeted, "A true friend is revealed in an emergency situation," in Japanese. The exchange symbolized their friendly relations.
A declaration at the end of the two-day summit referenced the "free and open Indo-Pacific strategy" championed by Abe.
The statement referred to the importance of maintaining maritime order, based on the rule of law, and the balance of power. In the area of economic development, the document underscored the need for financially sound and transparent infrastructure development. Beijing's critics accuse it of pushing ahead with aid projects without regard for its partners' ability to repay.
Japan is trying to keep the Pacific island nations on its side with development assistance. Because it cannot match China's financial muscle, it is pitching its high-quality infrastructure. In this effort, it has backing from the U.S. and Australia, which are part of the Indo-Pacific strategy.
Even as Japan and China work to warm up their chilly relations, the contest between Beijing and Taipei for influence with the island states of the Pacific continues. When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Japan between May 8 and May 11, he asked Abe to give his regards to his island neighbors.