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PACIFIC ISLANDS: WITH WHOM DO WE SLEEP TONIGHT?


Oceania — Francis Hazel, director of The Micronesian Seminar, remembers how one day a television crew from Israel had besieged his office in the capital of Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) -Pohnpei -. “I wondered what they were doing in this city which hardly appears on any world maps. Then I understood: Israeli public was curious about this country which keeps joining the US, voting against all UN resolutions condemning Israeli actions in the Middle East.”

Almost two thousand miles from FSM, enormous 747-400 jet of Air China is parked in front of the toy-like terminal of Faleolo International Airport in Samoa. High-ranking Chinese delegation came to inspect facilities their country had helped to build ahead of the South Pacific Games which will begin in Apia, Samoa, in August later this year.

Visiting Chinese officials, led by Li Changchun of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Politburo, attending the opening with Samoa’s Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who offered his thanks and praised sport facilities as some of the best in the region: “The government and people of Samoa would like to thank China for their assistance in ensuring exceptional facilities for the XIII South Pacific Games in August. As with the Aquatic Centre at Tuinaimato, China has shown generous support for our games infrastructure and this is much appreciated,” he said in his keynote address.

China threw several technicians and sports coaches into a bargain. And sports are not the only field in which it provides assistance to this Polynesian country with 180 thousand inhabitants. China provides Samoa with diverse aid package. It already constructed many government buildings in Apia, Samoa’s capital.

China is emerging as one of the major players in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. It offers aid and assistance, as well as investment. But there is one unbending condition: countries, which get aid from the Mainland China, can’t maintain diplomatic relationship with Taiwan.

On its part, Taiwan is doing all it can, spending tens of millions of dollars annually, to buy recognition from Pacific Island Nations. Once Taiwan is recognized and diplomatic relationships are established, almost all ties with People’s Republic of China are immediately severed.

There is no ideology involved. Thanks to the “culture of dependence” governments in Oceania are interested only in dollar terms. Both China and Taiwan are playing “cheque-book diplomacy”; those who offer more can gain new bedfellow as well as valuable United Nations vote.

The Pacific Island Forum has an official relationship with China, yet 6 of its 16 members officially recognize Taiwan, which China in turn regards as a renegade province. At the present count, Samoa, Kingdom of Tonga, Cook Islands, Niue, Fiji, Vanuatu, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and Papua New Guinea (PNG) “go with China”, together with two regional powers, Australia and New Zealand, while Palau, Marshall Islands (RMI), Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu “are with Taiwan.”

Several Pacific Islands are “swinging”, switching sides and trying to maximize its profits. There is no secret about the rules of the game. After “switching from China to Taiwan”, President Tong, President of Kiribati, responded to his vocal critics with disarming honesty: “Well, what can we do? We need to work with the nation that can support us!”

For many Pacific Island Nations, foreign aid is enormous and lucrative business. Several countries rely fully on foreign handouts and remittances. Entire Micronesia depends on dubious “Compact of Free Association” with The United States (defense treaty that gives the US military unlimited access to territorial waters and ports of Marshall Islands, FSM and Palau).

Support from Taiwan or China can have tremendous impact on economies of the countries with enormous territories (mainly ocean) but very few inhabitants.

For instance, only 20.000 people inhabit Palau. Although it produces almost nothing, country counts on the GDP per capita of almost 10.000 dollars a year, mainly due to the “Compact”, as well as aid from Taiwan and Japan. Almost every family in Palau owes a car; many (even some families without permanent employment) import domestic maids from the Philippines.

Although there is no official data available, it is presumed that Taiwan has donated to Palau around 100 million dollars since diplomatic ties were established in 1999 (5.000 dollars per capita!), out of which 3 million dollars have been spent on construction of conference centre, 2 million on the national Museum, 15 million on airport expansion, for example. Taiwan established direct air link between Taipei and Palau, bringing in hundreds of tourists every week. It also lent 20 million dollars for the construction of new capital city, Melekeok. (locally referred to as ‘Washington Jr.” for its architectural resemblance to Capitol Hill)

Last year, Taiwan donated at least 1 million dollars to renovation of government schools in Palau, supplying them, among other things, with 100 brand new computers, Windows software and 3 technicians (all computers were PC’s, while in the past, Palau’s Ministry of Education has used to use exclusively Apple).

To get aid from Taiwan is relatively easy; no need for the usual red tape and lengthy bureaucracy. As the future of “Compact” with the US is increasingly uncertain, Palau and Marshall Islands are trying to “diversify” their aid-dependent economies.

On its part, China offered last year to reward South Pacific countries that “abandon” Taiwan. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao offered millions of dollars in preferential loans and debt relief during his visit to Fiji in April 2006.

Foreign aid games are becoming extremely dangerous. They deepen dependency syndrome; a curse which is literally immobilizing Pacific Island Nations, deepening corruption, indirectly supporting status quo and oppressive feudal and religious systems that are still ruling over great majority of the nations in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia.

There is plenty of confusion and mystery surrounding the dealings between Taiwan, China, local elites and government officials. In the recent months there were several confused popular backlashes: brutal attacks on Chinese minorities and businesses in Honiara, Capital of Solomon Islands, as well as in Tonga during devastating riots that took place late last year.

It is certain that millions of dollars are flowing into the region, but it is often unknown how they are spent. While China is often willing to support long-term projects and infrastructure in the region, money from Taiwan can be often described as straightforward transactions: buying of votes. Such “rewards” will hardly bring benefits to impoverished majority of Pacific Islanders.

It would be wrong to blame everything on Taiwan or China. It takes two to a tango and Pacific nations are all too willing to dance to whatever tune with any partner willing to pay. But it would be reasonable to expect from both China and Taiwan that they exercise certain restrains and pay more attention where their money goes: Pacific Island Nations are presently facing severe crises: coups, riots and increasing violence are canceling earlier gains. Several nations are bankrupt due to mismanagement and corruption. Government officials do not necessarily represent interests of the people they are supposed to serve.

To bring things to perspective, sleeping around may cause no damage, but the money paid for the service may do more harm than good.

ANDRE VLTCHEK: novelist, journalist and filmmaker, editorial director of Asiana Press Agency (www.asiana-press-agency.com), co founder of Mainstay Press (www.mainstaypress.org) – publishing house for political fiction. He is presently investigating devastating impact of global warming on atoll nations in Pacific. He is based in Southeast Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at: [email protected]

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