Newly-installed lawmakers of the tiny South Pacific country of Tuvalu elected a new prime minister on Thursday, in a potential blow for ally Taiwan, which had diplomatic ties to another Pacific island nation cut this week in favour of Beijing.
Former Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, a strong supporter of Taiwan, had been expected to hold onto power after he retained his seat at a general election earlier this month.
But the country’s 16-person parliament instead selected Kausea Natano as Tuvalu’s new leader, Silafaga Lalua, a spokeswoman for the government told Reuters news agency.
Natano secured 10 votes in the secret ballot. His opponent was not named, and his position on diplomatic ties with Taiwan was not immediately known.
Natano previously served as the minister of works, water and energy for the former British colony.
China claims Taiwan as its own and says it has no right to formal ties with any nation.
Most countries today recognise Beijing, and China has been ratcheting up diplomatic and economic pressure to woo the remaining countries allied with Taiwan since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016.
Tuvalu, a South Pacific nation with 11,000 people has been a diplomatic stronghold for Taiwan, which now has formal relations with just 16 countries. Some observers say Kiribati and Nauru could also switch allegiance to Beijing.
On Monday, Solomon Islands became the sixth country to cut off ties with Taiwan in three years, rattling Western allies and prompting accusations from Taipei that China was meddling in Taiwan’s elections.
US Vice President Mike Pence has declined to meet Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, while Washington said it is reassessing its assistance to the South Pacific country in the wake of the decision.
US Republican Senator Marco Rubio has also sounded the alarm, saying the US should not stay silent.
He wrote on social media that Washington DC and the international community “must push back against Beijing’s bullying, and efforts to isolate Taiwan.”
Despite the Solomon’s recent switch Professor Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on China at the University of Canterbury, said the blow may not be as significant now as it might have been in the past.
That is because Taiwan has managed to forge unofficial relations with dozens of countries and the European Union as part of a more pragmatic approach to diplomacy, Brady said.