Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

FILE PHOTO: A view shows debris following high tides, in Funafuti
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By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Tuvalu on Monday announced former attorney general and fisheries official Feleti Teo as its new prime minister, after he was elected unopposed by lawmakers in the Pacific Islands nation, officials said.

Former Prime Minister Kausea Natano lost his seat in a general election on Jan. 26 closely watched by Taiwan, China, the U.S. and Australia, amid a geopolitical tussle for influence in the South Pacific.

Tuvalu, with a population of about 11,200 spread across nine islands, is one of three remaining Pacific allies of Taiwan, after Nauru cut ties last month and switched to Beijing, which had promised more development help.

Teo received unanimous support from the 16 lawmakers, two lawmakers told Reuters on Monday.

Teo, who was educated in New Zealand and Australia, was Tuvalu's first attorney general. He has decades of experience as a senior official in the regional fisheries organisation and has worked with the Pacific Islands Forum, the region's major political and economic group. Fishing is a major source of revenue in the Pacific islands.

"Feleti Teo was declared by the Governor General as Prime Minister for Tuvalu," Tuvalu's government secretary, Tufoua Panapa, said in an emailed statement.

Tuvalu lawmaker Simon Kofe congratulated Teo in a social media post.

"It is the first time in our history that a Prime Minister has been nominated unopposed," he said.

The election result in Tuvalu had been delayed by a month as dangerous weather stopped boats from bringing new lawmakers to the capital to vote for prime minister, highlighting why climate change is the top political issue in the Pacific Islands nation.

Taiwan's foreign ministry said its ambassador to Tuvalu, Andrew Lin, expressed Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen's congratulations to Teo, adding that deputy foreign minister Tien Chung-kwang will visit Tuvalu in the near future.

Teo is a friend of Taiwan's and has visited many times, and has said relations are stable and that maintaining ties is the widespread consensus in Tuvalu, the ministry added.

Taiwan previously said it was paying close attention to the election after Tuvalu's finance minister in the previous government, Seve Paeniu, said the issue of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan or China should be debated by the new government.

There had also been calls by some lawmakers to review a wide-ranging deal signed with Australia in November, that allows Canberra to vet Tuvalu's police, port and telecommunication cooperation with other nations, in return for a defence guarantee and allowing citizens threatened by rising seas to migrate.

The deal was seen as an effort to curb China's rising influence as an infrastructure provider in the Pacific Islands.

Teo's position on Taiwan ties, and the Australian security and migration pact, have not been made public.

Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on social media he looked forward to working with Teo.

"Australia deeply values our relationship with Tuvalu, in the spirit of the Falepili Union," he wrote, referring to the migration pact.

Tuvalu's ministry would be announced at an oath taking ceremony for the new government later this week, Panapa said.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney and Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Lincoln Feast)