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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Sept. 25) – The paint may barely be dry on a US$5 million, Taiwan-funded convention center when Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian and six island heads of state meet in Majuro for the second Taiwan Pacific Allies Summit in three weeks.

But Majuro hotels and government leaders are hoping that Chen and the island leaders’ visit will offer memorable activities as well as the formal policy meetings.

To make for a unique visit, outrigger canoe captains are preparing to sail Chen and the other heads of state in a flotilla across Majuro’s lagoon to give the visitors a memorable visit.

"We’re going to put each leader on a different canoe," said Alson Kelen, who runs the Waan Aelon in Majel cano building and sailing training program for young people. "They’ll have a blast and it’ll be a great photo op."

When Chen visited Majuro in 2005, he was supposed to take a 10-minute ride on an outrigger canoe to satisfy the crowd of TV cameras and newspaper photographers in his entourage, but extended the sail around Majuro’s lagoon with President Kessai Note to more than half an hour. He specifically requested that another sail be laid on by the Marshall Islands hosts, Kelen said.

Construction crews have been working until late at night six days a week to finish the two-story convention center in time for the Oct. 12-14 summit. Construction work wasn’t started until March this year, forcing Pacific International Inc. to put double shifts to fast track the work. But PII construction manager David Kramer said recently that the convention center will be ready for the meetings by Oct. 12, though some landscaping and outside work will remain to be completed.

Chen is expected to bring about 100 Taiwanese with him, including a large media contingent, when he arrives on October 12, said Taiwan Ambassador Bruce J.D. Linghu.

Heads of state from the islands that recognize Taiwan in the Pacific — the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Nauru and Palau — will join with President Note for the two days of meetings.

The summit will provide a welcome financial boost to Majuro hotels, whose modest room supply of about 200 is completely booked out for the visit. The largest hotel, Marshall Islands Resort, is sprucing up for the visit, with a fresh coat of paint applied to the outside of the hotel this past week, and new linens, bedspreads and towels being flown in from Hawaii this week in time for the summit, said hotel rooms manager Hirobo Obeketang.

"We’re doing major work at the hotel to get ready," Obeketang said. "Last week, everyone (staff) was outside working. This week they’ll be inside fixing things."

The summit is still a couple of weeks away, but already dozens of Taiwan government officials — including security teams charged with protecting Chen on his visit — have been flying into Majuro to support preparatory work and planning for the summit.

Although the People’s Republic of China accuses Taiwan of checkbook diplomacy, the summit is not expected to produce announcements of big money projects, according to officials in Majuro. That’s because Taiwan already has significant ongoing aid programs with each of its six allies.

In the Marshall Islands, Taiwan’s annual aid program is estimated at more than $14 million annually, with $10 million in direct funding, a $2.5 million contribution to the government’s national trust fund, financing of a small scale micro loan program that since it was launched last September has issued out more than $300,000 to farmers, fishermen and craft makers, and an active farming and aquaculture program. Taiwan has similar aid arrangements with each of its allies.

Last year’s first Taiwan summit in Palau promoted increased medical cooperation with the six island allies through expanding mobile medical visits, providing training opportunities in Taiwan for health professionals and offering medical referral hospital services to island patients.

But aside from an opportunity to sit face-to-face with the president of one of the larger aid donor nations in the region, two islands — the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu — have major fisheries concerns that they hope can get some help from Chen’s visit. Both islands have joint ventures with major Taiwan fishing companies to put Taiwanese-built tuna boats under their domestic flags. But Taiwan has blocked the vessels from being released from shipyards in Taiwan because other countries have objected to the increased numbers of vessels fishing at a time when scientists are expressing heightened concern about possible over-fishing in the region. The islands say getting the vessels into the fleets of Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands is an essential part of developing the local economies.

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