Tuvalu election puts Taiwan ties in play

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The freshly elected lawmakers of the tiny Pacific country of Tuvalu are set to choose a prime minister against a backdrop of China’s efforts to erode the region’s traditional support for Taiwan.

FILE PHOTO: Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sosene Sopoaga addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo

Incumbent Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, a strong supporter of Taiwan, retained his seat at a general election on Monday, voting results show, and any move by the new lawmakers to replace him will be closely watched in Beijing and Taipei.

The South Pacific has been a diplomatic stronghold for Taiwan, where formal ties with six of the 16 island nations make up more than a third of its total alliances.

That is now under threat, as Solomon Islands strongly considers a switch to Beijing away from Taiwan. Beijing views Taiwan as a wayward province with no right to state-to-state ties.

It is unclear whether there is appetite to explore a diplomatic shift in Tuvalu, a nation of around 12,000 people and one of the smallest electoral democracies in the world.

No date for the election of a new prime minister has been set, and the vote could take place any time in the coming weeks.

The re-election of Sopoaga would close the door to “any prospect that Tuvalu shifts away from Taiwan,” said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands program at the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Australia.

Seven of Tuvalu’s 16 members of the new parliament will be newcomers, according to the official results published on Tuesday.

Sopoaga, who has been prime minister since 2013, said in August that the island had no relations with China.

“We have a long-standing relationship with Taiwan, I appreciate what they have done for us,” Sopoaga told reporters in August.

Sopoaga has become a fixture on the international stage in calling for tougher global action to tackle climate change which threatens the low-lying country.

Taiwan will contribute $7.06 million to Tuvalu’s budget in 2019, according to budget documents.

Along with aid, Tuvalu is heavily reliant on income derived from the sale of fishing licenses to foreign trawlers and revenue generated from its fortunate country code domain name.

Tuvalu controls the rights to “.tv”, attracting interest from many media companies and websites around the world which pay for the rights to use the domain.

Reporting by Jonathan Barrett and Colin Packham in SYDNEY; Editing by Stephen Coates