Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Taiwan - Australia - Solomons

Do not arouse the wrath of the great and powerful Oz!

With President Ma having visited the islands of the South Pacific that recognize the ROC, not the PRC, Taiwan-Australia ties have been in the news lately. First there was a minor flap over the comments of Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian, who charged that the government of PM Kevin Rudd was appeasing Beijing by blocking Ministerial visits from Australia to Taiwan. This was denied by the Rudd government.

Taiwan and Australia are involved in a long-running spat? conflict? debate? over foreign aid to the South Sea Islands. The Ma government has actually displayed some forward thinking on foreign aid, putting out a White Paper on it, and pushing for Australia's cooperation. The Australian reports that Taiwan is "Purging Pacific Island graft", focusing on the Solomons, the focus of Taiwan-Australia friction:

When Ma arrived in the Solomons, he was told bluntly what had to change. The Solomon Star editorialised to him on "the abuse of your taxpayers' money by MPs using Taiwanese aid money as a slush fund. We are begging you to put a stop to this".

Ma says President Frank Kabui twice raised such concerns during a state banquet, as did PM Sikua. "Ever since I got here," he said, he had been confronted about the corrupt use of Taiwanese aid.

I've posted on this before (2008), when Australian criticisms of Taiwan's checkbook diplomacy suddenly disappeared when Ma promised to end aid to the South Sea Islands and Oz promptly reversed its position: send the money! Although Taiwanese money had been blamed for inciting riots in the Solomons, a Commission sent to investigate that issue concluded that Taiwan was not responsible.

As researcher Joel Atkinson noted in a 2009 article in Pacific Affairs entitled Big Trouble in Little Chinatown: Australia, Taiwan and the April 2006 Post-Election Riot in Solomon Islands, the situation was more complex than the news reports made out. To wit, and read closely:
"...Taiwan’s effort to maintain and expand the list of countries with which it has formal diplomatic relations, in the face of hostility from China, has clashed with Australia’s governance reform agenda for the Pacific Islands. This conflict is particularly acute in Solomon Islands, which has longstanding ties with Taiwan and a close association with Australia. However, while this divergence of interests is real, Australia has fuelled this conflict through imputing Taiwan for Australia’s difficulties in an apparent attempt to avoid acknowledging the ambitious nature of Australia’s agenda relative to the political, economic and social conditions in Solomon Islands. This inclination to make Taiwan a scapegoat brought about sustained public Australian criticism of Taiwan following the April 2006 post-election riot in the Solomon Islands, based on little more than the unsubstantiated claims of a single Solomon Islands politician. This episode inflicted serious harm on Taiwan’s reputation in Australia. The incident also contributed to the Chen Shui-bian Taiwan government’s perception of Australia as being increasingly pro-China."
Australia's claim was that funds from Beijing and Taipei were interfering with Australia's attempts to improve aid governance. Atkinson points out, however, that "it is debatable to what extent China and Taiwan weaken Australia’s reform agenda simply through providing South Pacific governments with funds to misuse. Presumably, if Australia’s efforts were effective, the administration of aid from China and Taiwan would improve accordingly."

What actually happened, according to Atkinson, is that local politicians in the Solomons simply exaggerated Taiwan's money flows in order to attack other politicians and portray themselves as being able to deliver the goods. Even worse, a double dipping politician accused Taiwan of interference when it defunded him:
Taiwan’s image problems were compounded when another candidate accused Taiwan of interference. Alfred Sasako complained that a rival candidate had told his electorate that they would receive no Taiwan funding as long as Sasako remained MP. He also alleged that Taiwan had provided the rival candidate with funding for two projects. Antonio Chen told the media that Taiwan had stopped funding projects for which Sasako applied because he had failed to account for a SI$315,000 (US$44,000) police post project which, unbeknown to Taiwan, had also been funded by Australia. There was little in this episode to suggest that Taiwan was “funding candidates,” and Taiwan’s withholding of funds from a cheat was actually to its credit. However, that there were now all of two candidates who had made accusations created a robust characterization of Taiwan that would shape post-election perceptions, especially in the Australian media.
The local political situation is complex and compounded by some very smarmy connections between individuals in the Australian government and local politicians in the Solomons. But riots "broke out" though on the balance it appears to have been planned, and the Chinese were blamed. The Australian government immediately began blaming Taiwan. While it is likely that Taiwanese private businessmen put money into the elections, there is no evidence to suggest the Chen Administration itself was involved. As Atkinson points out, there was no targeting of Taiwanese businesses even though there were plenty of potential targets. If Taiwan's money made everyone upset, why didn't Taiwanese businesses get torched?

A single paragraph will suffice to give the flavor of the complexity of events (and money flows!):
These events touched Taiwan when the Sydney Morning Herald accused Taiwan of funding Julian Moti’s escape from PNG (despite it being on a PNG military plane), and providing money to defeat a no-confidence vote against Sogavare. The newspaper argued, “While a lot of Australians see Taiwan as a brightening torch of democracy in Greater China, in our own neighbourhood it risks appearing more like a rogue nation.” These unsubstantiated claims and singling-out of Taiwan came despite an Australian government body, Airservices Australia, making payments totalling A$2.1 million (US$1.8 million) to “third parties” at the direction of Solomons officials “outside the terms” of contracts, and China directly funding at least one Solomon Islands political party. It seems unlikely that Australian media organizations would have made such attacks on Taiwan if not for the lead and encouragement provided by Canberra.
Australian was deeply involved in the Solomons through the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), which it had organized with other area nations to provide a fig leaf for its own intervention in the Solomons in 2003. Although RAMSI was effective in restarting some services, it became resented, like any foreign intervener, and failed (inevitably) to solve the ethnic problems that underpinned the political conflicts in the Solomons. Thus Taiwan's large involvement in the Solomons, as well as its lax aid supervision, became a sensitive issue for Australia -- and also made Taiwan aid a useful diversion to deflect criticism of Australia's own failures in intervening in the Solomons.

So to return to the criticisms in the newspaper report above....
Ma says President Frank Kabui twice raised such concerns during a state banquet, as did PM Sikua. "Ever since I got here," he said, he had been confronted about the corrupt use of Taiwanese aid.
How does Atkinson describe PM Sikua? Lessee.....
Australia’s problems with Sogavare continued until December 2007, when Derek Sikua, a leader supportive of Australia’s agenda and RAMSI, finally replaced him.
That context is probably necessary to understanding why Ma got criticized. Why did Ma accept that criticism? Because it reflects on the previous government, not him. In this case, criticism of Taiwan served the agendas of everyone involved...

Aussie radio on Ma's trip

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