Tuvalu’s pro-Taiwan leader loses seat in closely watched election

Tuvalu is one of only 12 remaining diplomatic allies of Taipei amid growing US-China rivalry in the Pacific.

Tuvalu has a population of 11,200 people [File: Sam Pedro/AFP]

Tuvalu’s pro-Taiwan leader has lost his seat in closely watched elections in the tiny Pacific island nation.

Prime Minister Kausea Natano failed to return to his seat on the main atoll of Funafuti, election results showed on Saturday, dealing a potential blow to Taipei’s efforts to hold onto its dwindling number of diplomatic allies.

Tuvalu, home to just 11,200 people, is one of only 12 states that formally recognise Taiwan, and Natano had pledged to maintain ties with the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its territory.

Taipei lost one of four remaining Pacific Islands allies last month after Nauru switched recognition to Beijing, following switches by Solomon Islands and Kiribati in 2019.

China refuses to recognise countries that have formal relations with Taiwan, which it has pledged to “reunify” with the Chinese mainland by force if necessary.

Natano’s rival, Seve Paeniu, who was returned to his seat, said he would seek the support of lawmakers to become prime minister after pledging during the election campaign to review the country’s ties with Taipei.

Lawmakers are expected to meet next week to vote for a new prime minister.

The election comes as small Pacific island nations such as Tuvalu are at the centre of a competition for regional influence between China and the United States and its Western allies.

In November, Natano signed a far-reaching deal with Australia that gives Canberra a say in Tuvalu’s defence ties with other countries in exchange for security guarantees and a pathway to residency in Australia for Tuvalu citizens threatened by climate change.

Enele Sopoaga, another potential contender for the leadership who retained his seat, has argued the deal should be scrapped because it infringes on Tuvalu’s sovereignty.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong on Saturday congratulated Tuvalu on the “successful election”.

“We look forward to working with the new Government,” Wong said.

“Australia and Tuvalu are longstanding friends, sharing an interest in building a stronger, more resilient and more peaceful Pacific.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies