As part of foreign diplomacy, every country is faced with the difficult choice – which China to recognize? Both the People’s Republic government in Beijing and the Republic of China government in Taiwan claim to be the one true government of China, and both guard those claims fiercely – particularly mainland China, with it’s “One China policy“. The ROC held China’s UN seat until 1971, but after Western relations normalized with Beijing in the 70s and the UN seat moved to the PRC, the tide has shifted, and today only a minority of countries recognize the government in Taiwan. Nauru is one of those, and that in itself isn’t particularly noteworthy – but what is is that in the space of about three years in the early 2000s, Nauru switched from recognizing Taiwan to recognizing Beijing….to recognizing Taiwan again.
So what happened?
Two things seemed to be pushing this flip – aid/development money, and Nauru’s political system. By the early 2000s, much of Nauru’s phosphate wealth had run out, and the country was looking for sources of funding. The exact details are murky, but it seems that Nauru may have decided to break ties with Taiwan and establish a relationship with Mainland China in order to access development funding, and then when that didn’t work out as expected, revert to Taiwan and hopefully sweeten any aid or development support from them.
It also seems like the switch to Beijing was not unanimously supported by the Nauruan government – the government structure there means that Presidents frequently rotate due to non-confidence votes and changes in loyalties in Parliament. It is alleged that the President at the time, René Harris, may have been working on his own initiative, without consulting Parliament.
What’s really astounding was how quickly this all happened. Nauru broke ties with Taiwan in 2002, had a physical embassy in Beijing for at most a year, then closed it in 2003, re-establishing its formal ties and embassies with Taiwan in 2005. However, Taiwan doesn’t seem to hold the whole situation against Nauru, as the Taiwanese ambassador is very active on Nauru, and Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-Wen has visited the island to much fanfare in 2019.
I also encourage you to take a look at this absolutely incredible photo of Tsai Ing-Wen serving chou doufu (stinky tofu) to the President of Nauru. I’ve been on the receiving end of that dish before and all I can say is that’s a truly diplomatic response.