Islands Business

SUVA, Fiji (January) – How many times have Pacific Islands leaders been heard to say that they won’t tolerate foreign interference in their internal affairs and pressures exerted on them as the price for aid?

When they do, they are usually sounding off against Australia or New Zealand, or perhaps France. How often do they sound off against China and Taiwan?

By the time Islands Business publishes this January edition, it is unlikely that Serge Vohor will still be the Prime Minister of Vanuatu.

If he has gone, then he’ll be another victim of the ping-pong game played in the Pacific between China and Taiwan as they duel for recognition from Pacific island governments; they duel each other that is, and bribe islands governments and their leaders.The ping-pong game has got to the stage at which it is destabilizing small countries that can’t afford the price of being unstable.

By December, Vohor was on the verge of being removed from office, after less than six months of heading it, by a parliamentary vote-of-no-confidence.

Six of his cabinet ministers had resigned and a number of government backbench members of parliament had rebelled to join the opposition attack on him.

Vohor’s error was to decide that Vanuatu should fully recognize Taiwan as well as China. His decision in November to do that was, as they say in the parlance of the times, unilateral. He didn’t tell anyone in advance, not the cabinet or the foreign affairs office.

The ministers, certainly the foreign minister, were entitled to feel annoyed about being so greatly taken by surprise.

But was that their only reason for turning against him with such fury? Were there other motives behind their rebellion?

Vohor explained that he felt that Vanuatu could become the first country to successfully run a Two China policy; full recognition for both China and Taiwan.

Back in the 1980s, Vanuatu did what most other of the world’s governments do, bow to China’s demand to treat Taiwan as its rebel colony and refuse to recognize it diplomatically.

Two China policies do work by means of various fudges such as participation in the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) group of nations and the new Pacific high seas tuna commission. Fiji kowtows to Beijing but allows the Taiwan embassy in Suva to run as a "trade office."

But Vohor went the whole hog; recognition for what China claims to be a rebel bit of China.

What China told Vanuatu in November was in effect; do what we say, or else. What would the "or else" be? Certainly, the immediate cutting off of all aid, as was done when Kiribati recognised Taiwan earlier in 2004.

Some other "or else’s" could well be applied by the victimization of Vanuatu and Kiribati, but quietly, through the international back doors.

Vohor complained that China hadn’t delivered aid it promised for years before, whereas Taiwan was ready to deliver rewards for recognition.

He knew he would anger the Chinese, he said, but Vanuatu wished to be friendly with both Chinas since it needed their economic support.

He said that China should not impose its foreign policy on Vanuatu by bullying (IB’s word) it out of relations with Taiwan.

Bully is the word to apply to China. In standing up to China by opting for a Two China policy, Vohor has done something other Pacific Islands governments should emulate.

The number of Pacific Islands leaders who have sold their souls, personally and nationally, to either one or both of the two Chinas is disturbing. It may be "Realpolitik," but the procession of them trotting off to Beijing (or for that matter a Washington prayer breakfast) to obediently toe the line in return for crumbs is a demeaning one.

China, for its own political reasons, has just become the first government from outside the region to become a full member of the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO). It is now engaged in trying to persuade SPTO to break its longer relationship with Taiwan.

Over a period of time China presumably hopes to now sew the region up as its sphere of influence just as Australia is doing. Small islands states that now fret about whether they are Australian pawns seem not to realise that they are already recumbent between the dragon claws of China.

Need the Pacific’s microstates be so meekly acquiescent in their relations with China? The flow of succour from China is not that great, tied as it often is to the use of Chinese labour and materials.

The Pacific Islands Forum’s states should make a stand and reap a surprise reward. The Dalai Lama, of Tibet, said in a recent interview: "...when you deal with the Chinese, if your stand is very firm and clear they will make space for your position. However, if you are meek they will act bolder." The Dalai Lama should know. He and his country are China’s victims too.

The Forum should take a strong collective stand. If China was told in no uncertain terms that all the Forum islands states recognize both Chinas, what could China do about that? Cut all their aid and lose 14 countries prepared to be friends? It would have to face up to the fact that it would lose face if it did that.

January 12, 2005

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