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Forging Political Alliances for Money
Francis Hazel, director of The Micronesian Seminar, remembers how one day a television crew from Israel besieged his office in Pohnpei, the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).
"I wondered what they were doing in this city which hardly appears on any world maps," said Hazel. "Then I understood — the Israeli public was curious about this country which keeps joining the United States, voting against all United Nations resolutions condemning Israeli actions in the Middle East."
Almost two thousand miles from FSM, an enormous Air China 747-400 jet is parked in front of the toy-like terminal of Faleolo International Airport in Samoa. A 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.
Visiting Chinese officials, led by Li Changchun of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Politburo, attended the opening with Samoa's prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who offered his thanks and praised the sports 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," Malielegaoi said in his keynote address. "As with the Aquatic Center at Tuinaimato, China has shown generous support for our games infrastructure and this is much appreciated."
China threw in several technicians and sports coaches into the bargain. Sports is not the only field in which it provides assistance to this Polynesian country of 180,000 inhabitants. China also furnishes Samoa with a diverse aid package and has 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 Mainland China can't maintain a diplomatic relationship with Taiwan.
For its part, Taiwan is doing all it can — spending tens of millions of dollars annually — to buy recognition from Pacific Island Nations. Once any country recognizes Taiwan and diplomatic relationships are established, almost all ties with China are immediately severed.
There is no ideology involved; the entire situation is due to the "culture of dependence" governments in Oceania, which are only interested in dollar terms. Both China and Taiwan are playing "check-book diplomacy." The one who can offer more can gain a new bedfellow as well as a valuable United Nations vote.
The Pacific Island Forum has an official relationship with China, yet six of its 16 members officially recognize Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province. At the present count, Samoa, the Kingdom of Tonga, Cook Islands, Niue, Fiji, Vanuatu, the 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 their profits. There is no secret about the rules of the game. After "switching from China to Taiwan," President Tong, leader of Kiribati, responded to his 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 a lucrative business. Several countries rely fully on foreign handouts and remittances. All of Micronesia depends on a dubious "Compact of Free Association" with the United States (a defense treaty that gives the American military unlimited access to territorial waters and ports of the Marshall Islands, FSM and Palau).
Support from Taiwan or China can have a tremendous impact on the economies of the Pacific Island countries with enormous territories (mainly ocean) but very few inhabitants.
For instance, only 20,000 people inhabit Palau. Although it produces almost nothing, the country boasts a GDP per capita of almost $10,000 a year, mainly due to the "Compact," as well as aid from Taiwan and Japan. Almost every family in Palau owes a car; many import domestic maids from the Philippines — even some families without permanent employment.
Although there is no official data available, it is presumed that Taiwan has donated around $100 million to Palau since diplomatic ties were established in 1999 ($5,000 dollars per capita!), out of which $15 million has been spent on an airport expansion, $3 million on the construction of a conference center and $2 million on the national museum.
Taiwan also established a direct airline link between Taipei and Palau, bringing in hundreds of tourists every week. In addition, it lent $20 million for the construction of the new capital city, Melekeok, which is locally referred to as "Washington Jr." for its architectural resemblance to Capitol Hill.
Last year, Taiwan donated at least $1 million to the renovation of government schools in Palau, supplying them — among other things — with 100 brand new computers, Windows software and three technicians. All of the all computers were Windows PCs, while in the past, Palau's Ministry of Education exclusively used Apple machines.
To get aid from Taiwan is relatively easy; no need for the usual red tape and lengthy bureaucratic delays. As the future of the "Compact" with the United States is increasingly uncertain, Palau and Marshall Islands are trying to "diversify" their aid-dependent economies.
For its part, China offered last year to reward South Pacific countries that "abandon" Taiwan. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao proffered millions of dollars in preferential loans and debt relief during his visit to Fiji in April 2006.
The foreign aid games are becoming extremely dangerous. They deepen dependency syndrome, a curse which is literally immobilizing Pacific Island Nations — furthering corruption, indirectly supporting the status quo, and oppressive feudal and religious systems that are still ruling over the 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 recent months there were several confused, widespread backlashes in the form of brutal attacks on Chinese minorities and businesses in Honiara, capital of the 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 building in the region, money from Taiwan can be often described as a straightforward "buying of votes." Such "rewards" will hardly bring benefits to the impoverished majority of Pacific Islanders.
It would be wrong to blame everything on Taiwan or China. It takes two to tango and governments in the Pacific Islands are all too willing to dance to whatever tune any amenable paying partner wishes. However, it would be reasonable to expect that both China and Taiwan would exercise certain restrains and pay more attention to where their money goes.
Pacific Island Nations are presently facing severe crises — coups, riots and increasing violence are canceling out earlier gains. Several nations are bankrupt due to mismanagement and corruption. Government officials do not necessarily represent the interests of the people they are supposed to serve.
To bring things into perspective, sleeping around may cause no damage, but the money paid for the service may do more harm than good.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, journalist and filmmaker who is editorial director of Asiana Press Agency (www.asiana-press-agency.com) and co-founder of Mainstay Press (www.mainstaypress.org), a publishing house for political fiction. He is presently investigating devastating impact of global warming on atoll nations in Pacific.
View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Andre Vltchek.