Mon, Apr 03, 2006 - Page 3 News List

Chinese Premier Wen to visit the Pacific Islands


Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) will tomorrow become the first Chinese premier to visit the Pacific islands, a longtime diplomatic battleground for China and Taiwan.

Wen starts his trip in Fiji where he will meet leaders from eight island nations in the tourist town of Nadi for the first ever China-Pacific Islands Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum.

But six island nations which recognize Taiwan instead of China will be missing, highlighting the long-running competition for recognition between Beijing and Taipei in the region.

Only 26 countries recognize Taiwan, and nearly a quarter of them are from the Pacific.

The evidence of the rivalry is everywhere in the Pacific.

Samoa's largest building, the five-story government office, was built with Chinese aid. Dollar diplomacy by both Beijing and Taipei is responsible for many buildings, agriculture projects and other initiatives across the region.

Taiwan's supporters include some of the poorest and smallest countries in the region -- Nauru, Palau, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. Some have shifted alliances a number of times and become adept at virtually auctioning themselves off to the highest bidder.

Both China and Taiwan have been accused of interfering in the political process in island countries by handing out cash to their favored politicians.

The allegations have been made against Taiwan most recently in the current Solomon Islands election campaign but denied by Taipei and the Solomons government.

Associate professor John Henderson of Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand, said China's new diplomatic push was partly aimed at preventing Taiwan getting any further recognition in the region but it goes beyond that.

"The main thing is symbolism. China taking its leadership role in the region seriously," he said.

"They want to get recognition of a country which is certainly destined to play a major role in the region. It's recognition of an emerging major power."

The traditional powers in the region -- the US and Europe, Australia, New Zealand -- have to learn to work alongside China, and island countries have another option for aid and political support, he said.

China has been gaining influence in the Pacific for many years, with a regular procession of Pacific Islands politicians getting five-star treatment during visits to Beijing.

"There have been more Pacific Islands minister visits to China than to any other country," said University of the South Pacific emeritus professor Ron Crocombe.

He said the engagement with China was part of the region turning increasingly to Asia, with Japan also increasing its diplomacy though efforts including the annual summit between Tokyo and regional leaders.

"The whole balance of power is going to swing to Asia," Crocombe said.

Most Pacific towns have an established Chinese population and they have been joined by a new wave of immigrants in the last two decades. Some came as a result of passport selling schemes by countries such as Tonga, Nauru and the Marshall Islands in the 1990s.

Concerns have been raised about a number of criminals among the newer arrivals. These were heightened in Fiji in 2004 when several Chinese were arrested in Suva after a police raid on the largest methamphetamine laboratory ever discovered in the southern hemisphere.

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