Why Does China Still Care About Taiwan’s Allies?


  • Chinese strategy aimed at eroding Taiwan’s support in the world.
  • China seeks international recognition, extraterritorial control over its diasporas and domestic legitimacy.
  • Taiwan, however, remains firmly focused on maintaining support from the U.S.


  • Chinese strategy aimed at eroding Taiwan’s support in the world.
  • China seeks international recognition, extraterritorial control over its diasporas and domestic legitimacy.
  • Taiwan, however, remains firmly focused on maintaining support from the U.S.

In January of this year, Nauru switched recognition from Taiwan to China, reducing the number of Taiwan’s partners from 13 to 12. It did so two days after Taiwan’s presidential elections produced an outcome that was unwelcome in Beijing: four more years of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taipei.

A man unloads farmed seaweed onto a drying dock in Beniamina Island, part of the Solomon Islands, June 5, 2018. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)
A man unloads farmed seaweed onto a drying dock in Beniamina Island, part of the Solomon Islands, June 5, 2018. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)

This practice of switching a Taiwan-supporting country as punishment has precedent: in March 2023, China announced that Taiwan’s largest ally, Honduras, was choosing “the right side of history” just as Taiwan’s then president Tsai Ing-wen was transiting through the United States. Talk to Taiwan’s diplomats privately, and they concede that for most of their remaining allies, the question is not if they will switch but when.

But why does China lavish funds and time on countries that barely register in the consciousness of its people, and that have minimal effect on its broader geopolitical battle with the United States? From China’s perspective, the reasons for investing in this battle are largely found in three different arenas: international recognition, extraterritorial control over Chinese diasporas and domestic legitimacy. All three of these factors are, of course, tightly interrelated.

International Recognition: Telling China’s Story Well

Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been steadfastly focused on the international narrative around China’s role in the world, as the formulation goes, to “tell China’s story well” (讲好中国故事). The China referred to in this phrase is not ordinary Chinese people, but rather the CCP telling China’s story, with itself as the hero in the drama. The core of this formulation is — to put it crudely — a group of old men telling a story about themselves and their infallibility.

Finding allies that are willing to speak on the CCP’s behalf at international fora, most prominently at the United Nations, has become a primary focus. This can relate to issues China is defensive about — such as camps for Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, island building in the South China Sea or the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong. More allies can be useful in a narrative sense — whenever a motion is put by Western nations condemning China’s actions, a counter motion will be put in support, typically with more signatories supporting China’s position. For some votes in U.N. agencies, a couple of votes can make the difference. One of China’s most notable wins in recent years was in 2022, when the U.N. Human Rights Council voted against discussing a report on human rights abuses in Xinjiang by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, 19 to 17, with 11 nations abstaining. Two of the countries that voted in support — the Marshall Islands and Honduras — were Taiwan allies at the time. With the exception of Somalia, no developing nation that recognized China voted in support. Aside from Somalia, all the Muslim-majority nations on the council either voted against (Indonesia, Pakistan, Qatar, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates) or abstained (Malaysia).

International support, which is often more enthusiastic from countries that have recently switched to Beijing, is not simply about gathering support for controversial causes. While Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, ran a mile from any suggestion that China was offering a “Beijing Consensus” to rival Washington’s, the current leadership in Beijing is confident that they have a model to offer the developing world, for everything from poverty alleviation to their legal system. The rhetoric of leaders who have recently decided to abandon Taiwan echoes this self-confidence, even though Western media coverage of recent decisions to switch are so excoriating. Reputational concerns seem to have played a role in Tuvalu’s decision to stay with Taiwan in the aftermath of this year’s election.

Extraterritorial Control: The Long Arm of the Law

Visiting Solomon Islands in the lead-up to the country’s switch in 2019, I was struck in conversations with local Chinese traders that nearly all of them were lukewarm, if not outright hostile, to the idea of China opening an embassy in the capital, Honiara. Peter Kenilorea Jr., an opposition politician who argued strongly that Solomon Islands should remain with Taiwan, was surprised to find mainland Chinese shopkeepers stopping him to praise his policy, or if they spoke no English simply giving him a grin, a thumbs up and announcing, “Taiwan, good!”

The lack of enthusiasm was surprising. Having an embassy would save Chinese traders an expensive trip to Papua New Guinea to renew their passports, which in their telling usually involved being shaken down by customs and police at Jacksons International Airport in the capital Port Moresby. In part, their reluctance stemmed from concerns that greater attention would mean more Chinese migrants, and thus more competition. In over a decade of interviewing these shopkeepers, I’ve found a cool and often antagonistic attitude toward China’s diplomats is ever present, envied for what the merchants see as an easy life “eating the emperor’s grain.”

Parallel to this is an increasing ambition on the part of the Chinese state to govern its citizens beyond its borders, encoded in legislation such as the Hong Kong National Security Law, and a broader policy push to spread “foreign related rule-of-law” (shewai fazhi). In 2021, Xi urged “the construction of a legal system for the extraterritorial application of our country’s laws” and to “resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests.” Before this, a shift in the agency responsible for managing China’s citizens abroad, from the government-affiliated Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs to the CCP-led United Front Work Department, signalled a shift in the way diasporas were viewed. Overnight, they went from being a seen as a source of investment into China, to diplomats and messengers for China. Taiwan-allied countries, especially those with significant Chinese diasporas, represent a challenge to these ambitions. They’re also a hub for Chinese criminals, many of whom have an ambivalent relationship with the Chinese state.

Chinese businessmen in Honiara, criminal or honest, didn’t need to read Xi’s speeches or parse the National Security Law to see a shift in how they were regarded by the Chinese state. From a state largely indifferent to their troubles, they now faced a state willing to act to defend their interests, but also to police them. Their WeChat feeds regularly buzzed with news of the extraordinary lengths the Chinese state went to in apprehending Chinese citizens abroad, combining these police operations with parading and shaming rituals taken straight from “Strike Hard” anti-crime police campaigns of the 1980s. A 2017 operation in Fiji hit particularly close to home, with 77 alleged Chinese cybercriminals seized and marched onto a China Southern Aircraft to be flown to Changchun in northeast China, with no due process. Dressed in black hoods and blue prison fatigues, each of the detainees was photographed on the tarmac and in the aircraft, flanked by tall police officers on either side. The audience for all this theater was not the people of Fiji, but to assure a domestic audience that the CCP was willing to go to any lengths to track down its enemies.

Domestic Legitimacy: Legitimacy With the Public, and the Party

From the perspective of the CCP, isolating Taiwan diplomatically is a matter of sovereignty, and thus, domestic legitimacy. Much of China’s efforts to shut down Taiwan’s involvement in international fora is for the benefit of its domestic audience, both the Chinese public, and more importantly, members of the CCP. While the rhetoric that accompanies each switch is boilerplate to the point of comedy, phrases such as “the right side of history” reflect consistent CCP narratives which are confirmed by events such as Taiwan losing an ally, or a country signing an extradition treaty with China. Hearing praise and support from foreign leaders is more effective than hearing it from the Chinese government.

Solomon Islands’ former prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, who led his nation’s switch to Beijing in 2019, took this to another level in an appearance on China Global Television Network in which he described Xi as a “great man” and praised his four-volume (at last count) “The Governance of China.”

Diminishing returns on this strategy are also apparent, however. When Nauru, the world’s third-smallest nation, switched to Beijing, the reaction on Chinese social media ranged from celebrating a humiliation for Taiwan to openly mocking Nauru as a “weird country”  and “an empire of poop-digging,” referring to its depleted phosphate mines, which used to be its main source of revenue.

This parallels domestic sentiment in Taiwan, where popular opinion is far from supportive of Taiwan’s remaining allies, viewing those that remain as “poor, brown and small.”  Taiwan’s diplomats — and Western strategists — know the main game lies elsewhere. If you can have the military backing of the United States and tacit support from its allies, why focus on keeping small Pacific nations in your orbit? Insiders suggest that Taiwan no longer bothers to send its best diplomats to the countries that support Taiwan.

Politicians in countries such as Solomon Islands have couched support for Taiwan as part of a broader struggle for freedom and democracy. Closer examination suggests canny politicians overlaying saleable geopolitical narratives onto grievances that are deeply local and personal. And as even Taiwan’s diplomats will admit, they didn’t do much for democracy in Solomon Islands, creating Rural Constituency Development Funds that are effectively an instrument of vote buying.

These three motivations — the desire for international standing, extraterritorial control and domestic legitimacy — will continue to underpin China’s logic of competing with Taiwan in the Pacific and beyond. The second factor — the zeal of Xi’s party in controlling their citizens abroad — is the most challenging development for China’s diasporas and the target nations themselves. Without the institutional resources and (in many cases) the interest to push back against these incursions into their sovereignty, smaller states may find themselves caught in the cross fire of battles not of their own making.

Graeme Smith is a senior fellow with the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University and co-hosts “The Little Red Podcast.”

PHOTO: A man unloads farmed seaweed onto a drying dock in Beniamina Island, part of the Solomon Islands, June 5, 2018. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).