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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, June 5) — A high-level delegation of Marshall Islands parliamentarians is heading for Beijing this week, a visit that is stirring the China-Taiwan rivalry for political recognition in the Pacific region.

The parliamentarians’ trip has triggered expressions of concern by Taiwanese officials and also reportedly from Marshall Islands President Kessai Note, who less than two months ago made a state visit to Taiwan.

Since 1998, the Marshall Islands has had diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which China considers a "renegade province" of the mainland.

Marshall Islands parliament Speaker Litokwa Tomeing was to lead the delegation, but said Thursday that he has handed the trip off to Vice Speaker Ruben Zackhras, who will head a delegation of the seven committee chairmen in the parliament on a trip to China that starts on June 12.

Tomeing acknowledged that both President Note and Taiwan officials have expressed concern about the ramifications of the visit on Marshall Islands-Taiwan diplomatic ties. But Tomeing defended the visit, saying it was at the invitation of the National People’s Congress of China, and is a legislature-to-legislature exchange. "There’s nothing wrong with the visit," he said.

The trip is being paid for by China’s National People’s Congress, he said.

"We are friendly people and we don’t have enemies," Tomeing said, adding that the visit was a way of extending hands in a friendly manner. The problems between Taiwan and China are their own internal issue, he added, not the Marshall Islands’.

But Taiwan officials worry that it may be a move by some high-level leaders in the Marshall Islands to engineer a switch in recognition from Taipei to Beijing after nearly eight years of strong relations between Majuro and Taipei. The Beijing trip may actually be a statement more about politics in the Marshall Islands than a prelude to a diplomatic switch, as Tomeing and the chairmen of committees — who comprise about 25 percent of the 33 member parliament — have since March been increasingly critical of President Note’s stands on several key issues, including nuclear test compensation efforts, resolution of problems for long-term U.S. use of a sophisticated missile testing range at Kwajalein Atoll, and management of the copra (coconut oil) industry in the country. Even most opposition senators in the parliament support ties with Taiwan, since they were in the government in 1998 that led the switch from China to Taiwan.

Taiwan is now the second biggest aid donor to the Marshall Islands after the United States, providing about $10 million annually in direct grants.

Taiwan also has just launched an $800,000 micro credit scheme, operates an agriculture mission that aids dozens of Marshall Islands farmers, is making multi-million dollar contributions to a government trust fund, and has volunteers working in various government agencies, including an aquaculture specialist working to develop a fish-farming industry.

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian visited Majuro last year, and Note responded with a Taiwan tour in April.

"The parliament is an independent organization and I respect their decision," said Taiwan Ambassador Lien-gene Chen, who is based in Majuro.

"But when such a high-level delegation goes to Beijing it means something."

He said the Marshall Islands and Taiwan believe in democracy, freedom and human rights but the People’s Republic of China is a "country that denies all of these. To visit such a country is not a good sign."

While not saying specifically that China was attempting to get Marshall Islands leaders to switch allegiance from Taiwan, Chen said "everyone knows the purpose of the PRC to arrange the visit." He added that it is causing attention of "my parliament, government and media." Chen added: "I hope that it does not hurt the mutual trust developed between our two countries."

Tomeing said he wanted to "maintain the status quo" — meaning the relations with Taiwan, and added that the Marshall Islands has benefited from its diplomatic link with Taiwan. But, he added, China had been helpful to the Marshall Islands in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the United Nations Trusteeship arrangement then governing the islands was terminated in favor of independence.

Tomeing said he decided not to lead the delegation largely because of commitments next week on his home atoll of Wotje involving a high school graduation and an annual celebration of the island’s liberation from Japan by U.S. forces in World War II. But he also said he thought it was appropriate for the vice speaker to head the group — which some observers see as a move to reduce Taiwan’s anxiety over the visit.

The China visit is expected to include Sens. Maynard Alfred, Nidel Lorak, Helkena Anni, Norman Matthew, Alik Alik, Tadashi Lometo and Tomaki Juda who head the seven standing committees of the parliament.

June 5, 2006

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