Pacific Island nations will seek new, stronger ties with China this year, despite concerns from traditional allies, one of the region's most senior diplomats has pledged.
In a speech this month in Port Vila, Vanuatu, Dame Meg Taylor, the secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum said it was time to debate how to "collectively engage" with Beijing to gain access to its markets, technology, financing and infrastructure.
"Exploring opportunities for extending China's Maritime Silk Road through our Blue Pacific could provide opportunities for creating regional infrastructure and access that could inspire new markets of trade between Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America," she said.
The suggested pivot towards China comes amid reports that Beijing is ramping up pressure on the forum to formally embrace a One China policy and isolate Taiwan, an Indo-Pacific ally of the US, Australia and New Zealand.
Sources from two Pacific nations told Australia's ABC that Chinese officials had tried to convince the PIF to accept that the Chinese Communist Party is the rightful government of the democratic island of 23 million.
The move is provocative as the Pacific is one of Taiwan's last strongholds of diplomatic support, where six nations – the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Tuvalu and Palau – all formally recognise Taipei rather than Beijing.
China is pursuing a relentless campaign to poach Taiwan's allies at a time when the US, Australia and Japan are increasingly concerned about Beijing's growing reach in the Pacific region.
Michael Cole, a senior non-resident fellow at Nottingham University's China Policy Institute, said that China was seeking to curb Washington's influence.
"A switch in diplomatic recognition by these island nations in favour of Beijing would therefore have ramifications for the US' power projection in the Pacific," he said.
"Pacific nations have become a new battleground for influence as China seeks to expand its sphere of influence; by default, this marks a new front line in the global ideological battle," he said.
"The severing of ties with Taiwan would make it much more difficult for the US and Australia, among others, to work with those governments."
Last week political party chiefs in the Solomon Islands pledged to maintain formal ties with Taipei after an April 3 election.
However, Kitsch Liao, a defence analyst in Taipei, suggested that Palau could be wavering. "The president is close to us but the rest of the government is not with Taiwan," he said.
Ross Feingold, a Taiwan-based analyst, said that some strategically-located Pacific nations could be used "for port calls for military purposes or satellite base stations".
But he countered that if one of the six switched allegiance to Beijing it would not make a substantive difference.
"Given that China already has relations with some Pacific nations, the US or Australia, and to a lesser extent New Zealand, already have to deal with China's presence, and over time a larger presence, whether it's economically or militarily," he said.