Voting began on Friday in the tiny Pacific island nation of Tuvalu in a national election that is being closely watched by China, Taiwan, the United States and its ally Australia, amid a tussle for influence in the region.
Tuvalu, with a population of about 11,200 spread across nine islands, has campaigned at international conferences for greater action to help low-lying nations address climate change, because science shows its capital Funafuti risks being inundated by tides by 2050.
Most of Tuvalu is forecast to be flooded by high tides by 2100, says the United Nations Development Programme, which is working with Tuvalu to bolster its coastline.
A contest for influence in the Pacific between China and the United States has seen Tuvalu courted, with Washington recently pledging to connect its remote population by undersea cable to global telecommunications for the first time.
Tuvalu is one of three remaining Pacific allies of Taiwan, after Nauru cut ties this month and switched to Beijing, which pledged more development support.
Taiwan on Thursday said China was trying to influence the Tuvalu election and “seize our diplomatic allies.” China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
China views democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory and not entitled to diplomatic ties. Taiwan rejects China’s sovereignty claim.
Contenders for Tuvalu’s leadership have all advocated for climate change action on the world stage, but differ in approaches to ties with Taiwan, a diplomatic ally since 1979.
Tuvalu’s Finance Minister Seve Paeniu, who has secured a seat in the new parliament as one of only two candidates for the Nukulaelae island electorate, told Reuters he expects Taiwan ties to be reviewed after the election.
The new government should decide whether Taiwan or China can best respond to Tuvalu’s development needs, he said.
Prime Minister Kausea Natano has told Taiwan he continues to support ties, Taiwan said.
Enele Sopoaga, ousted as prime minister by Natano at the 2019 election, and former foreign minister Simon Kofe, have previously pledged support for Taiwan.
There are no political parties, and two lawmakers will be chosen by voters in each of eight island electorates.
After votes are counted, government boats collect the new lawmakers from islands and bring them to the capital Funafuti, a journey that can take up to 27 hours. The prime minister is chosen by the newly elected lawmakers. Natano and Kofe are running in the seat of Funafuti.
Kofe attracted global headlines in 2021 when he delivered a speech to the United Nations climate change summit standing knee deep in water to highlight the plight of the low-lying nation.
Tuvalu signed a security and migration agreement with Australia in November that allows Canberra to vet security ties. Sopoaga has rejected the Australia deal, while Kofe said some aspects should be revised.