Global Policy Forum

Islands in the Beijing-Taipei Storm


By Ian Williams*

Asia Times
May 2, 2007

This week the newly elected United Workers Party (UWP) government in St Lucia finally put truth to the rumors that have been spreading since it took office. It has reopened diplomatic ties with Taiwan. China has been blustering for several weeks in anticipation of the event, which was heralded by several high-level visits from Taipei. St Lucia had switched from Taiwan to China in 1997 when St Lucian Labour Party leader Anthony Kenny won the election.

The Caribbean is rich in music, rums, beaches - and United Nations envoys. Most of the small islands are sovereign members of the UN, and each has the same vote as mighty China in the General Assembly. Indeed, each of them also has one more vote than medium-sized Taiwan, which has led to a war of attrition over several decades between Beijing and Taipei, with each wooing the governments of the small states for recognition. In fact, 12 of the 25 states recognizing Taiwan are Central American or Caribbean.

The Caribbean states have few assets, and their sovereignty is one of them, which is why their votes are courted on such issues as the whaling ban - and China. Many of them also are prickly on their independence and have maintained strong stands on such issues as the International Criminal Court and relations with Cuba, despite heavy pressure from the United States. They can be bought, but they do not like bullying, which is why Beijing's blustering can be counterproductive.

The competition benefits the Caribbean as a whole, since the chosen weapon of the two contending parties is aid: roads, conference centers, sports stadiums and gymnasiums. In the case of St Lucia, the People's Republic of China's current projects include a psychiatric hospital and schools. The massive International World Cricket Cup that climaxed with an Australian victory in Barbados last Saturday was played on several of the islands, in stadiums paid for with the fruits of competitive aid.

But St Lucian External Affairs Minister Rufus Bousquet complained after a recent visit by his Taiwanese counterpart James Huang that "the Chinese have essentially given us very large and expensive buildings which are rather difficult to maintain. Thus far St Lucian citizens have asked themselves questions as to both the usability and viability of the stadium built by the Chinese. We as a government are grateful for the fact that the Chinese have shown a willingness to assist, but I think in terms of assisting, the general concept with which the UWP operates [is] one of sustainable development, an area in which the Taiwanese are very proficient."

Sometimes there are echoes of the Cold War, in that the parties that were resolutely anti-communist such as the UWP of Sir John Compton, elected prime minister of St Lucia in December, recognized Taiwan while the more leftist, Third Worldist governments went with Beijing. But with the blurring of ideology from China, those influences are usually less crucial. For example, Kenny's close political friend Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines maintained the Taiwan connection when he took office in 2001, despite a youthful fling with Maoism. Taiwan is rebuilding the airport, essential to expanding tourism.

The island nation of Dominica was facing bankruptcy and then was faced with an offer from Beijing that it could not refuse - more than US$100 million over six years. It switched from Taipei to Beijing in 2004.

One of the few that have had to pay a price has been Haiti, where China, despite having personnel in the UN mission there, has often threatened to veto its continuation in protest at the continuing recognition of Taiwan by successive administrations in Port-au-Prince. It has so far bowed to diplomatic pressure from Latin American and Caribbean states not to do so.

The new pro-independence government in Taiwan stopped the former policy of insisting that states recognize it as the sole government of all of China (indeed, the Kuomintang had insisted on including Mongolia as well) and, as now with St Lucia, encouraged countries to maintain relations with Beijing. Of course Beijing actually wants Taipei to claim the whole of China, rather than restrict its claims to the territory it actually claims.

It is highly unlikely that China will continue relations with St Lucia past the few weeks or months it takes before it abandons its hopes of persuading the UWP government to reverse its stand yet again.

On many issues, the Caribbean nations like to take a united stand. It is unlikely that they would on recognition of either Beijing or Taiwan. Whichever they recognize, it is to the advantage of all of them to be able to play off one against the other, so an occasional churning of envoys reminds both Taipei and Beijing that they should not take loyalties for granted.

About the Author: Ian Williams is author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

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