Tuvalu changes PM, adds to concerns over backing for Taiwan in Pacific

(Reuters) - Parliament in the tiny South Pacific country of Tuvalu elected a new prime minister on Thursday, making a change that analysts say could give China a chance to further undermine Taiwan in a region that has been a pillar of support.

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

The surprise change in Tuvalu has lengthened the shadow over Taiwan’s standing in the South Pacific after the Solomon Islands earlier this week cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, leaving it holding formal relations with just 16 countries.

Having retained his seat at a general election earlier this month, Tuvalu’s pro-Taiwan leader Enele Sopoaga had been expected to keep the premiership, but the 16-person parliament instead selected Kausea Natano, whose position on Taiwan was not immediately known.

Natano secured 10 votes in the secret ballot, against Sopoaga’s six, said Tuvalu Secretary Tine Leulu.

Regional analysts said the change in power in Tuvalu could give Beijing an opportunity to further isolate Taiwan, which China claims as its territory and says has no right to formal ties with any nation.

“It wouldn’t take much cash to get Tuvalu to consider its position,” said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands program at the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Australia.

“Taiwan will be very nervous about this outcome.”

China has significantly increased aid and lending to the Pacific, attracting attention by the United States and its regional allies, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, which are also boosting their diplomatic efforts.

Joanne Ou, spokeswoman for Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Taipei that its ties with Tuvalu were stable and that the new prime minister has “close interactions” with its embassy there. She said Taipei will closely monitor further developments.

Taiwan’s ambassador in Tuvalu, Marc Su, said that Beijing had little influence there after an unsuccessful attempt to draw Tuvalu away just over a decade ago.

“You can feel they are trying to attract our diplomatic allies in every possible way,” Su told Reuters by telephone from the Tuvalu capital of Funafuti.

“This country is OK - there won’t be any effect,” Su said, adding that Taiwan had good relationships in Tuvalu from “grass roots to top level”.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang declined direct comment on Tuvalu.

“We are willing to develop friendly cooperative relations with all countries in the world on the basis of the ‘one China’ principle,” Geng told a daily news briefing, referring to Beijing’s principle that Taiwan and China are both part of “one China”.

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

Along with aid, the nation of around 12,000 people 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, “.tv”.

The domain name attracts interest from many media companies and websites around the world which pay for the rights to use it.

Reporting by Colin Packham and Jonathan Barrett in Sydney; additional reporting by Micheal Martina in beijing; editing by Lincoln Feast & Simon Cameron-Moore