Wed, Feb 11, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Ministry denies interfering with Kiribati election

CASH FOR RECOGNITION The Ministry of Foreign Affairs admitted to a deal between a Taiwanese diplomat and a Kiribati politician, but said it didn't amount to interference

By Graham Norris  /  STAFF REPORTER

A Taiwanese diplomat signed an agreement with a Kiribati politician -- who subsequently ran in the country's presidential election -- regarding the establishment of ties between Taiwan and Kiribati, Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials have confirmed.

The officials denied claims by the politician, Harry Tong, that money was involved.

Taiwan's representative to Fiji, Liu Fu-tien (劉富添), signed the memorandum of understanding with Tong in August 2002, the officials said.

Tong went on to run in Kiribati's presidential election in July last year, but lost to his younger brother, Anote Tong.

President Tong arrived in Taiwan on Monday night for a five-day trip to cement diplomatic relations that were established in November last year. He will meet President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and sign an agricultural cooperation deal with the government.

In the agreement with Harry Tong, Liu expressed the aspiration to establish ties between Kiribati and Taiwan, according to ministry spokesman Richard Shih (石瑞琦), and that Taiwan would be able to provide assistance to Kiribati in a number of areas, including education, infrastructure, health, fisheries and tourism, if relations were established.

What is not clear, however, is why the government wanted such an agreement with a politician who had not even declared his candidacy for the election, or why Harry Tong agreed to sign the memorandum.

US$80,000 incentive

Tong told Islands Business magazine that he had signed a memorandum with Liu a few weeks before the election in exchange for US$80,000 in campaign funds. Tong said Liu had given the money to his campaign manager in three installments between September 2002 and June last year.

When contacted on his mobile phone yesterday, Liu said, "Sorry, I'm in a meeting," and hung up. Subsequent calls to the number were not answered.

Shih denied that Liu had given Tong money in return for a commitment to recognize Taiwan if he became president.

"The government never authorized representatives to engage in checkbook diplomacy," he said. "My government never funded an election campaign in Kiribati."

Shih said he had "no comment" when asked why, if not for money, Harry Tong had signed the memorandum.

He also refused to comment on why the government wanted to sign the agreement with Harry Tong and if the government would have carried out the terms of the deal. Nor would he say if there were any other agreements between Taiwan's government and Kiribati politicians.

Gary Lin (林松煥), director-general of the ministry's Department of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, suggested that the agreement was a personal one between Liu and Harry Tong, and that it had nothing to do with the Taiwanese government, even though the memorandum involved government-to-government relations.

"Our representatives overseas always make contact with other countries," Lin said. "It's very normal."

He said Liu and Harry Tong became good friends in the Marshall Islands, where Harry Tong was working as a doctor and Liu as Taiwan's ambassador between 1999 and 2001.

Shih, however, acknowledged that Liu was working for the Taiwanese government when he met Harry Tong in the Fijian capital Suva in 2002 but denied the agreement was an attempt to influence the Kiribati election.

improving relations

"To strengthen relations with other democratic countries is our policy," he said. "This does not mean we intended to interfere in another country's election."

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