Dev Nadkarni: Taiwan's change felt across Pacific

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The Kuomintang Party's victory in the Taiwanese elections may finally ring the curtain down on the decades-long one-upmanship games between China and Taiwan in the Pacific.

Ever since they went their separate ways after the civil war in 1949, Taiwan (which calls itself the Republic of China) has maintained that it is a sovereign nation while China (officially the People's Republic of China) has continued to consider it a renegade province.

The two have since gone to great lengths to seek the diplomatic allegiance of nations across the globe.

Over the years they have competed fiercely to win the support of Pacific Island states - especially the relatively poorer ones - with large dollops of aid and a range of other mostly pecuniary inducements.

New Zealand, Australia and more recently the United States have often criticised this policy as chequebook diplomacy.

On occasion the two have poured so much effort - and money - into outdoing each other to woo the islands that elections have been fought and governments have fallen on the question of whom to support.

Six Pacific Island Forum nations - Nauru, the Solomon Islands, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu - support Taiwan, while the rest follow what is known as the One China Policy, owing allegiance to the People's Republic.

Their acrimony has at least on one occasion been open: on the margins of the annual forum summit in Fiji two years ago, China's assistant foreign minister publicly accused Taiwan of spreading corruption in the region with largesse.

And last year, Taiwan hosted a summit for its allies in Palau at the same time as the annual forum countries' leaders met in Tonga. Several leaders opted to go to the Taiwan gathering.

In 2006, Beijing also took exception to the then Fiji leadership's half-hearted attempt to dally with the visiting Taiwanese President.

Fiji later clarified that it had only allowed President Chen Shui-bian and his entourage "transit facilities" in between flights, denying there was any diplomatic interaction.

Over the years, the political equation between Taipei and Beijing as well as people-to-people relations between the two have worsened mainly because of the President Chen-led Democratic Peoples Party's increasingly strident pro-independence stance and Chen's public utterances to that effect.

Observers attribute the Kuomintang Party sweeping 81 of the 113-seat legislature to dissatisfaction in the business community with the DPP's eight-year-long uncompromising stand on China.

The consensus is that Taiwan missed huge opportunities to participate in and benefit from China's fast-growing economy, because of the worsening stand-off. Besides, Taiwan's economy had slowed in recent years with rising unemployment and inflation.

The KMT is perceived as being aligned with China and its leadership has announced that its first priority would be to mend relations with Beijing.

The KMT's candidate Ma Ying-jeou is widely expected to defeat DPP's Frank Hsieh in the presidential elections on March 22.

While KMT is expected to continue its involvement in the Pacific with the same vigour as Chen's regime, its policies are bound to differ - especially since independence from China is no longer the overriding issue.

Diplomatic allegiance on the issue of independence in exchange for aid is no longer the quid pro quo it was.

Indeed, for the Pacific Islands, the years of largesse may finally be over.

The KMT's think tank is speaking of rationalising the way Taiwan and China have handled their aid and assistance packages in the Pacific and elsewhere.

A couple of them have said that now there will be opportunities to bring about a measure of practicality in the aid process, replacing economic assistance with development assistance.

Much of such ad hoc "economic assistance" tended to be unconditional and was viewed by Western countries with suspicion.

Speaking to the media soon after the elections, KMT legislator Yang Li-huan hinted that most of this ad hoc aid went directly to politicians.

By an interesting coincidence, KMT's new innings coincides with four new governments in the Pacific Island countries that support Taiwan - the Solomon Islands, Nauru, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands.

In the coming months it will be interesting to see how the new political equation between China and Taiwan will affect their ongoing hitherto severely competing initiatives in the Pacific.

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