Nauru’s Geopolitical Clout  

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Nauru’s Geopolitical Clout  

The diplomatic battle between Taipei and Beijing is but one arena where Nauru is flexing muscle that greatly exceeds its demographic and geographic size.

Nauru’s Geopolitical Clout  
Credit: Facebook / The Government of the Republic of Nauru

The tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru is wielding some serious geopolitical clout at the moment. Nauru announced on January 15 that it would immediately switch its allegiance from Taiwan to China. This took some wind out of the sails of Taiwan’s victorious Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which won the January 13 presidential election despite Beijing’s concerted efforts to the contrary. Now the new Taiwan government has one less ally, meaning only 12 nations continue to recognize it with three of those being in the Pacific (Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu).

The diplomatic battle between Taipei and Beijing is but one arena where Nauru is flexing muscle that greatly exceeds its demographic and geographic size. With a population of just 13,000, a land area comprising of a single 21 square kilometer island, and an oceanic territory of 200 nautical miles, Nauru is currently positioned on several fronts to play a pivotal role in Pacific geopolitical tensions, the hot and very contentious new frontier of deep-sea mining, as well as Australia’s domestic politics due to the controversial immigration detention center it has operated in Nauru since 2001.

Nauru’s outsized importance on the world stage is not new. The late 19th-century discovery of immense deposits of phosphate put Nauru on many maps, marked as a “treasure island” according to one authoritative historian. From 1906, the British Phosphate Commissioners (BPC), exclusively employing Chinese laborers from 1924, extracted Nauru’s terrain and turned it into fertilizer that enriched the agricultural fields of Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, powering agricultural boom times while over decades rendering Nauru a moonscape. 

The destruction of Nauru’s culture and environment triggered detailed investigations in the 1960s about relocating the population to Australia in ways that presage present schemes to move islanders out of the path of rising seas. Decades of mining had transformed Nauruans. They were “no longer farmers or fishermen, having lived so long on the proceeds of the phosphate,” according to one observer. The mining royalties developed an external cash dependence that has characterized Nauru’s economy since.

The relocation idea was scuttled in 1964, Nauruans would stay put on Nauru and began campaigning for their islands’ rehabilitation so they could subsist off it once more. Reports at the time estimated 3.75 million tons of soil would be needed to replace the mined lands, at a cost way beyond what the BPC or the three governments that had governed Nauru since World War I – Australia, Britain, and New Zealand – were willing to bear. 

With rehabilitation scuttled, Nauruans worked for independence – which they gained in 1968 – and control over mining operations. Though phosphate mining was moving toward exhaustion of reserves, for a time it yielded royalties that made Nauruans the richest people in the world on a per capita basis, and also some of the unhealthiest as their diet relied on imported and heavily processed foods. However, mining proceeds were so poorly invested and managed that the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust, valued in 1990 at AU$1.5 billion, went into receivership in 2004.

As Nauru was heading for a fiscal cliff in the early 2000s, Australia devised an idea that served two purposes. Dubbed the “Pacific solution,” Australia built and funded an immigration detention center on Nauru for people seeking refuge, mostly from Middle East conflicts in the post-9/11 era. For Nauru, it meant another cash bonanza of millions of dollars per year from the Australian government in what has been a highly controversial chapter in its history, which both sides of Australia’s politics have contributed to. The detention center is still being funded, and a small number of immigrants are still accommodated there, with 12 Pakistani asylum seekers who landed in remote Western Australia in the past days being sent to Nauru for processing. Yet its ballooning costs were becoming difficult for the Australian government to justify and the continuation of the Pacific solution was looking tenuous.

Taiwan has blamed Australia’s moves to end this funding line as the reason Nauru switched to recognizing China, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on January 16.  The influx of asylum seekers has been a red-hot political issue in Australia, playing particularly well for the Coalition side of politics at critical times since 2001. Recently, the opposition reignited this political tinderbox, and the Labor government, as its predecessors have done, utilized the Nauru detention center to assure the Australian public that the problem and potential danger posed by asylum seekers (real or imagined) has been moved offshore. Costs have receded as an issue as the detention center is once again useful. 

With this change, Nauru has a significant card to play in its ongoing relationship with Australia when it comes to the detention center, given the political pressure being applied in Australia. Nauru’s switch to recognize Beijing has also prompted calls for Australia to negotiate an agreement similar to the one just brokered with Tuvalu, the Falepili Agreement, that allows for all Tuvaluans to move to Australia over time in exchange for Australia being informed over future security agreements. This would be a revival of the stillborn 1960s plans to move Nauruans into Australia en masse. Though now with Nauru’s move to China such an agreement is complicated, if not canceled out. Time will tell.  

Nauru has also gained considerable regional influence through the recent appointment of its former prime minister, Baron Waqa, as secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in November 2023. This came about when the Nauru delegation led by President David Adeang walked out of the PIF meeting and also left the Cook Islands, which was hosting the summit, when other leaders balked at Waqa being put forward.

Waqa’s name is often prefaced with the word “controversial.” According to Radio New Zealand (RNZ) “Waqa was a controversial figure during his time as Nauru president, for his treatment of refugees and the judiciary, while there are accusations, he received bribes in a case that remains open.” The recently repaired Pacific Islands Forum, which brought all the Micronesian nations back into the fold after they all left in 2021 over the secretary general position, meant concerns about Waqa were set aside for the sake of forum unity. 

What happened with securing the PIF leadership now looks very different since Adeang’s announcement about jettisoning Nauru’s relationship with Taiwan. No doubt there will be concerns, particularly from the Australian and New Zealand sides, that Waqa will do China’s bidding, albeit in discreet ways. 

One divisive issue very much on the forum table, as well as on that of the U.N. International Seabed Authority (ISA), is the issue of deep-sea mining and how it is to be governed. Nauru is the nation that pushed the ISA in 2021 to deliver the rules in two years’ time to manage this new mining and minerals frontier, which China already dominates.  Some Pacific nations, like Nauru, are all for deep-sea mining, seeing it as an opportunity to tap resources for their nations. Others, like French Polynesia, are opposed due to the unknown environmental impacts it will entail.

Regardless of how the chips fall with deep-sea mining, what is clear is that Nauru has now returned to its previous status as a place of disproportionate influence for its size, thanks this time to the invaluable assistance of China.