Sun, Nov 18, 2007 - Page 3 News List

Defection of Marshall Islands' speaker prompts concern about diplomatic ties

AFP , MAJURO

The sudden defection of the Marshall Islands speaker to the opposition ahead of national elections has fueled speculation in the central Pacific nation about its ties with Taiwan.

Two days ahead of tomorrow's vote, Speaker Litokwa Tomeing said the Marshall Islands had "wronged" China by recognizing Taiwan in 1998 and that it was time to "fix this problem by adopting a one-China policy."

The Marshall Islands, with a population of 60,000, is one of 24 countries that recognize Taiwan.

Tomeing had been the Marshall Islands' parliamentary speaker for eight years since the United Democratic Party (UDP) of President Kessai Note won control of the government from former president and paramount chief Imata Kabua.

However, when he defected a week ago, saying the UDP had not lived up to its promises of reform, he reduced the UDP to just a two-vote majority going into tomorrow's elections.

Tomeing's push for a rollback to diplomatic ties with China follows his trip to Beijing last week and a trip by four leading opposition members of parliament to China last month.

The opposition group included Senator Tony deBrum, the architect of the Marshalls' shift to Taiwan in 1998 when he was finance minister in a previous government.

DeBrum has declined detailed comment about the reasons for his China visit, saying only that it was a "fact finding visit" and that he would address the issue after the election.

The Marshall Islands' business community strongly supports ties with Taiwan in large part because Taiwanese funding goes directly to hiring local construction contractors and their workers and therefore circulates money in the economy.

"I want to thank the Republic of China for all that it's done for the people of the Marshall Islands," Chamber of Commerce president Jack Niedenthal told business leaders this week. "If I listed all of the projects that Taiwan has assisted with over the past nine years, I'd be talking for an hour."

Taiwan's large-scale aid has become an integral part of the Marshalls' budget, and Taipei is the Marshalls' second-largest aid donor behind the US, providing US$10 million in direct grants annually as well as assisting with several other projects.

Whether the election will bring any change to this arrangement will not be known for nearly two months.

The election result in the former US territory cannot be confirmed until after Dec. 3, when postal absentee ballots are to be counted, and the president will not be elected until the incoming parliament is formed in the first week of January.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs deputy spokeswoman Phoebe Yeh (葉非比) said it will have no impact on the country's diplomatic relationship with the Marshalls even if the opposition won the election.

"Taiwan remains on good terms with the Marshalls' political parties," Yeh said.

Based on the information passed on by the ministry's officials in Marshall, Yeh said the ruling party is still expected to win a majority in the parliament.

However, Yeh said the ministry will continue to closely monitor the situation.

Additional reporting by Shih Hsiu-chuan

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