Taiwan's Pacific power play

Kiribati: Struggling for world respect, the `Republic of China' uses dollar diplomacy, gets recognition from a remote Pacific island nation.

February 15, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TARAWA, Kiribati - Harry Tong was planning to run for president of this tiny republic in the middle of the Pacific, so of course he appreciated the gesture made by an official from Taiwan. As Tong remembers it, the official placed a black satchel filled with cash on the coffee table in front of him.

It was late 2002, and Tong was meeting with a Taiwanese trade representative, Fu-tien Liu, whose government had expressed considerable interest in his presidential ambitions. Tong said Liu told him that the cash - $80,000, according to Tong's campaign manager - was a contribution to his campaign.

"Unbelievable," Tong recalls thinking. Then he told himself, quickly sliding the money over to his campaign manager, "Now we have a chance to compete."

But nagging at Harry Tong's mind was a fundamental question: Why on earth is Taiwan so interested in our little country?

The explanation for Taiwan's interest is both obvious and mystifying. Kiribati (pronounced "Kiribas") is the latest pawn in the decades-old diplomatic feud between China and Taiwan, in which the worth of a country is measured not so much by its gross domestic product as by its membership in the United Nations, something Taiwan has lost and desperately wants to regain.

Taiwan has since won full diplomatic relations with Kiribati, a hard-to-reach collection of coral atolls, population about 90,000, that straddles the equator just west of the international date line. It is one of 27 nations that recognize the "Republic of China."

How Kiribati became Taiwan's latest prize is a tale of two brothers who ran against each other for president, their rivalry becoming a proxy for a diplomatic battle between two Chinas.

And it is a story about money, about how one of the two Chinas managed to buy its way into this impoverished nation's favor, with as much as $8 million a year in aid and, critics contend, with satchels of cash for one brother and then the other.

Harry Tong, 53, narrowly lost his bid for the presidency in July to his younger brother, Anote Tong, who acknowledges receiving bags of campaign cash from outside the country last spring. Anote Tong, 51, won't say who gave him the money - he said he doesn't even know who some of the donors were - but he said he doesn't believe any of it came from Taiwan.

Anote Tong, however, says happily that money was the deciding factor in recognizing Taiwan.

"People accuse me of engaging in dollar diplomacy. In what country's diplomacy is there not some sort of gain involved?" said the president, who was in Taipei with his wife for a state visit, all expenses paid by Taiwan. "Had we told the people that this assistance had been offered and we had rejected it, then we would have been rejected by the people."

President Tong and his appointed Cabinet agreed in October to recognize Taiwan without public debate, announcing the decision after Tong signed the final agreement with Taiwan on Nov. 7. China cut its ties weeks later.

China regards Taiwan, an island of 23 million people off the southeast China coast, as a renegade province of the People's Republic, not a sovereign nation. It expends tremendous energy to keep other countries from recognizing Taiwan and international organizations from accepting Taiwan as a member.

Now, two Chinese embassies on Tarawa, one occupied only by caretakers from Beijing, the other flying the flag of the Republic of China, are little more than 100 yards apart, their occupants never meeting.

That Taiwan successfully wooed Kiribati was a rare setback for China. But the courtship also reflects how the roles of China and Taiwan have reversed in the past 30 years.

For more than two decades after Chiang Kai-shek set up his government-in-exile on Taiwan in 1949, the United States and the United Nations chose to recognize the Taiwan government as the legitimate representative of the mainland.

Taiwan lost its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council to Beijing in 1971 and suffered another blow in 1979, when the United States normalized relations with Beijing and cut formal ties with Taipei.

Thus the United Nations and the United States affirmed the "one China" principle, which holds that there is one China, represented by Beijing, and that Taiwan is part of it.

Since then, with its strict insistence on the "one China" policy, Beijing has pushed this second China almost literally to the ends of the earth looking for friends, money in hand.

In Kiribati, Taiwan has found a place that certainly needs the money.

Under other circumstances, Kiribati would hardly seem much of a prize. Situated between Australia and Hawaii in the vast expanse of Oceania, the country is a string of coral atolls spread out over thousands of miles.

It was last of any strategic significance during World War II, when the Americans defeated the Japanese here in one of the bloodier - and, critics have said, unnecessary - battles of World War II, leaving thousands dead on both sides.

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