TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Diplomatic relations between the Marshall Islands and Taiwan and the U.S. are on the line after a general election commenced on Monday (Nov. 18).
The Marshall Islands, one of Taiwan's 15 remaining diplomatic allies, is holding a national election on Monday with very high stakes. President Hilda Heine's government, which is aligned with Taiwan and the U.S., may be voted out in favor of an opposition party eager to sign a debt diplomacy deal with China.
The island nation's parliament is currently deadlocked, with 16 members on each side. Meanwhile, a new law bans 15,000 Marshallese who live in the U.S. from voting, representing about one-third of the total electorate of 44,000 registered voters.
Although the country's supreme court ruled the exclusion was unconstitutional, it said it was too late to enforce nullification of the law, reported the Daily Excelsior. Thus, one-third of the country's voters, many of whom are more likely to favor a pro-U.S. government, will be excluded from the election.
The opposition party backs a plan by Chinese investors to build a special administrative region on one atoll in the country. Based on previous form with diplomatic allies of Taiwan poached by China, the communist regime will likely make such a deal contingent on switching diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing.
Also at stake is whether to renew the Compact of Free Association with the U.S., in 2023. Under the agreement, the U.S. provides billions of dollars in aid in exchange for controlling the island's defense and security.
The agreement includes U.S. ownership of the 1.9 million-square-kilometer Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll. Although the U.S. had lost some enthusiasm for the formidable facility in recent years, prospects of a cold war with China have reminded policymakers of its key strategic position in the Pacific.
Foreign Minister John Silk on Friday told South China Morning Post (SCMP) that four years ago, the U.S. "had no interest in extending the Compact." Yet, in July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the U.S.' intention to extend the Compact beyond 2023.
Given the strategic and technological importance of the missile base, the U.S. will likely seek to pressure the new government to reject the China deal and maintain ties with Taiwan. This would thereby prevent encroachment by China of U.S. military assets.
Marshallese for their part are wary of the U.S. as it has dropped 67 nuclear bombs on their country over the years. This has exposed many of them to astronomical levels of radiation, that persist to this day.
The threat of Chinese encroachment now gives Marshallese leverage in negotiating more favorable terms for the Compact. It also gives them a stronger hand to address lingering issues to do with the loss of land and health problems wrought by the numerous nuclear bombs dropped by the U.S.
Unlike previous diplomatic allies which were recently stolen away by China with ease, the multi-billion-dollar strategic missile facility housed on the Marshall Islands is an asset the U.S. would be loath to surrender to its communist counterpart. Therefore, the U.S. will likely ratchet up the pressure to steer the Marshallese government from any deals with Beijing and maintain ties with Taiwan.