MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — The new prime minister in the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu said on Friday his country shares democratic values with Taiwan and reaffirmed that his government would maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei, ruling out a shift to Beijing.
Prime Minister Feleti Teo spoke to The Associated Press via Zoom, his first interview with international media since his government took office earlier this week.
“Our ties with Taiwan are purely based on democratic principles and they have been very loyal to us,” Teo said.
Teo, a 61-year-old first-time lawmaker, and his eight Cabinet ministers were sworn into office on Wednesday, a month after general elections in the strategically significant nation of 11,500 people half way between Australia and Hawaii.
Election campaign issues included whether Tuvalu should switch its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing. An elected candidate proposed scrapping a treaty, which has yet to be ratified, that would give Australia veto power over any security-related agreement Tuvalu wants to make with any other country, including China.
The new administration announced it would maintain diplomatic ties with the self-governing Taiwan. China has claimed Taiwan since a 1949 split amid civil war.
“We don’t see any reason why we need to invest in time to discuss and engage in the two-China discussion,” he added, referring to the counter-policy from the “One China” principle, which is China’s view that it has sovereignty over the mainland, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.
Seve Paeniu, who was finance minister in the previous government and was considered a leadership contender in the election, had argued for Tuvalu’s relationships with both Taiwan and Beijing to be reviewed. Paeniu was excluded from Teo’s Cabinet.
Tuvalu’s Parliament has 16 lawmakers and no political parties so a prime minister must garner the support of at least eight independent lawmakers to command a majority.
After Teo was chosen by 10 of his fellow lawmakers to be prime minister on Monday, China’s foreign ministry urged Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to “stand on the right side of history and make the right decision that truly serves their long-term interest” by switching allegiances to Beijing.
When the tiny atoll country of Nauru switched alliances to Beijing in January, Tuvalu was left one of only three Pacific island nations aligned with Taiwan, a self-governed democracy that China claims as its own territory.
Teo, a former long-term Tuvaluan public servant and regional bureaucrat, said the question of changing allegiances was “definitely not” an issue for his people.
Teo said he hopes to renegotiate development assistance agreements with Taiwan and that impacts of climate change and sea level rises remain top priorities for his nation of low-lying atolls.
The treaty with Australia, announced by previous Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in November, offered Tuvaluans an option of resettlement in Australia to escape rising oceans and worsening storms.
Australia would initially allow up to 280 Tuvaluans to immigrate each year. The treaty would also commit Australia to helping Tuvalu in response to major natural disasters, pandemics and military aggression.
But Teo wants Australia to drop a clause that both countries must “mutually agree” on any third-country security agreement that Tuvalu may seek.
Teo said he had been involved in drafting the treaty as a legal consultant for Tuvalu and the original intention had been only for Australia to be informed of such third-party agreements. Australian approval had not been expected.
Teo would not speculate on whether Australia wants veto power to avoid a repeat of the security pact signed between China and the Solomon Islands in 2022 that raised the prospect of a Chinese naval foothold being established in the South Pacific.
Teo said while his government is “certainly behind the broad principle and objectives of the treaty,” it still has ways to go. In his view, the treaty would become acceptable if Australia dropped the mutual agreement provision.
“We need to revisit that provision,” Teo said. “The general perspective here in Tuvalu is that it might encroach on Tuvalu’s sovereignty.”
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s office did not immediately respond to a request or comment on whether further negotiation was possible.
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