By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (February 17, 2001- Marshall Islands Journal/PINA Nius Online)---The United States veto of a visit to the Marshall Islands by a fleet of Taiwanese navy vessels has angered officials in Majuro. They say the U.S. is violating the country’s sovereignty.

Invoking its defense veto power under the Compact of Free Association for the first time since it was implemented in 1986, the U.S. State Department informed Majuro officials that the visit of three Taiwan naval cadet training vessels scheduled for May will not be permitted.

U.S. Ambassador Michael Senko said in an interview that sensitive U.S. relations with the People’s Republic of China won’t be helped by a port visit of a Taiwanese naval vessel. "It’s not in our interests to have Taiwan naval vessels make port calls in the Marshalls because of the U.S. government’s ‘One China’ policy recognizing only the Beijing government," he said. "It directly affects our security interests."

But Marshalls Foreign Minister Alvin Jacklick said in an interview that he was taking the issue up directly with Senko because there is "no security issue or risk involved in a friendly ship visit to the Marshalls."

Senko said, however, that the port visit presents a clear security issue for the U.S. because of the sensitivity of its relations with the People’s Republic of China. The Marshall Islands established ties with Taiwan in 1998.

The three Taiwanese navy vessels left Taipei early last week and are heading first for Caribbean and Central American countries before the planned visit to Majuro in May.

Republic of China Ambassador to the Marshalls Leo Fu-tien Liu said everything is proceeding as planned for the visit, which -- like last year’s visit -- has been warmly welcomed by the Marshall Islands government.

Asked about the State Department’s action vetoing the naval visit, Liu said that is an issue "between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands." But as far as he is concerned, everything is moving forward as planned.

Under the Compact with the Marshall Islands, the U.S. has the authority to deny access to any third nation’s military, and has veto power over any foreign affairs action that conflicts with U.S. security interests. U.S. veto power has never been invoked during the 15-year relationship.

In exchange for defense rights in the Marshalls -- which include operation of the Kwajalein missile testing range where national missile defense programs are field tested -- the U.S. provides about 70 percent of the national budget for the Marshall Islands.

Jacklick said he hoped the U.S. would reconsider this decision, particularly as a precedent has already been set by the Taiwan navy visit to Majuro last year, but he added that the he knows the U.S. is "under pressure from China."

Foreign Secretary Marie Maddison said she was surprised by the speed with which the State Department vetoed the naval visit. She said that in just 48 hours -- an almost unheard of swiftness -- State had issued its reply to the Marshall Islands notification, suggesting to her that it didn’t get review by top-level officials in either the State or Defense Department.

"It only took 48 hours for the response from the Department of State," she said. "How much thought was given to it, and was the Defense Department involved?"

She also questioned how a visit by a midshipmen training vessel could be seen as a security threat to the U.S. The visit was being planned to coincide with annual constitution day celebrations in the Marshall Islands, with a marching band from the ship to perform at the event, she said, adding that last year’s visit by three Taiwan navy training vessels had a significant economic benefit to Majuro.

"I hope the Department of State will be open to the Marshall Islands’ response," Maddison said.

Senko, commenting on last year’s Taiwan naval visit, said that it "shouldn’t have happened," but that people in the proper channels were not aware of the visit until it was too late to act. "We’re exercising our right under the Compact to exclude foreign military from the Freely Associated States," Senko said.

Jacklick, who couched his criticism with the preamble that "the Marshalls values its relations with the United States," said this was a sovereignty issue. "Our argument (to allow the visit) is based on our mutual relationship with the U.S. and what the Marshall Islands is allowed to do under the Compact."

He said it was a "fundamental right" of the Marshall Islands to invite a Taiwan ship visit based on its diplomatic ties and past experience with Taiwan, which included a visit last year to which the U.S. didn’t object.

The Marshall Islands Journal, Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail: journal@ntamar.com  Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year US $87.00; international $213.00 (air mail).

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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