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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Solomon Islands violence underscores China-Taiwan rivalry in South Pacific

By: Mike Corder, Canadian Press
Published: Thursday, April 27, 2006

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao jetted into Fiji earlier this month to lavish millions of dollars on Beijing's impoverished South Pacific allies.

Vanuatu got help buying a new passenger jet. Papua New Guinea got a multimillion dollar sports stadium, and Fiji got loans to pay for Internet connections in all government offices.

But one of the region's poorest countries, the Solomon Islands, got nothing because it is one of just 25 countries around the world that have diplomatic links with China's rival, Taiwan.

Last week's explosion of violence in the Solomons' capital underscored the destabilizing effect the Beijing-Tapei tug-of-war for diplomatic recognition has on impoverished South Pacific countries.

Rioters reduced Honiara's Chinatown to rubble, angry over rumours that the newly elected prime minister, Snyder Rini, funded his campaign with money from Taiwan or China.

On Wednesday, Rini resigned ahead of a no-confidence vote planned by opposition legislators. The opposition candidate to succeed him, former Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, said he would consider severing ties with Taiwan, saying it was time for the Solomons to join the majority of the world in giving diplomatic allegiance to Beijing.

"The Solomon Islands is part of the world community, we need to move on," Sogavare told The Associated Press.

Rini, who served as finance minister and deputy prime minister in two previous administrations that were loyal to Taiwan, rejected allegations that he used money from Taipei or Beijing to build support among legislators who voted for him in a secret ballot.

"That's what they may think. That's why I say to them, 'If you have evidence, bring it up to the police.' We have a law to deal with all this," he told the AP on Tuesday. "But it's just hot air in the street."

China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949. Beijing still considers the island part of its territory and demands that its diplomatic partners give no formal recognition to Taipei.

Taiwan uses pledges of aid to back up its quest for diplomatic recognition around the world, an effort that cost the country the equivalent of almost $520 million Cdn last year, Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said.

China lobbies other governments to keep Taiwan out of the United Nations and other bodies that might treat the democratic island as a sovereign government

On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Ganq accused Taiwan of fomenting turmoil in the Solomon Islands and other countries through its dollar diplomacy.

"For a long time the Taiwan authority have grossly and wantonly promoted dollar diplomacy, which has boosted the corruption, chaos and disturbance in some countries as well as undermined the fundamental interests of the local people," Qin said.

Critics say the money from both countries does little to cure the underlying economic malaise of countries like the Solomons, encourages corruption among the political elite and fuels resentment among impoverished populations.

Despite Taiwan pumping millions of dollars into the Solomon Islands in recent years, the vast majority of its half million people live in poverty.

"Certainly there has been a sort of playing off of those two powers by a number of the small island states, including the Solomons," said Sinclair Dinnen, a senior fellow at Australian National University. "Government leaders and officials are provided with endless junkets to go off and visit Taipei ... and they have a good time, and they are wined and dined and presumably given a generous allowance."

China has diplomatic ties with Fiji, the Cook Islands, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu, as well as the tiny coral atoll of Niue.

Taiwan is recognized by Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands.

Some countries have switched allegiances in apparent attempts to generate more aid.

In 2003, Kiribati, a land of 33 coral atolls scattered around the equator with a population of 100,000 and gross domestic product of under $112 million, switched from Beijing to Taipei. China immediately halted work on a stadium it was building for Kiribati and dismantled a satellite-tracking station there.

In a report for the Centre for Independent Studies, an Australian think tank, Pacific expert Susan Windybank said the South Pacific was useful to China because its small, impoverished countries form crucial voting blocs in international forums.

"The Pacific islands may be small but they are also numerous and in some forums numbers count, particularly the United Nations with its one-country, one-vote system," Windybank said.

© The Canadian Press 2006



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