Pacific island lawmakers mull dumping Taiwan for China

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TAIPEI, Nov 22 (Reuters) Some lawmakers in the tiny South Pacific nation of Palau are suggesting it break links with diplomatically isolated Taiwan and recognise rival China instead, the archipelago's ambassador to Taiwan said.

Taiwan is recognised by just 24 mostly impoverished countries around the world which it attracted with lavish aid. Taipei needs all the friends it can get to prove it is a separate entity from Beijing, which is recognised by 170 countries and insists that the rest of the world treat Taiwan as a Chinese province.

Some members of Palau's 16-seat House of Delegates, speaking after visits from Chinese Foreign Ministry ''scouts'', had said ties with Beijing would offer more business opportunities to the archipelago of about 20,000 people, envoy Lydia Ngirablosch said.

''Over the past three months there was noise coming out of the House, though not so much recently,'' Ngirablosch said. ''The (legislators) say China has a booming economy and that it's better to do business there.'' Beijing, which lost control of the island at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, seeks to pressure it into unification by making diplomatic allies switch ties to Beijing.

Successive Taiwan bids for UN membership have failed over 15 years. Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China, lost its seat at the United Nations in 1971 in favour of Beijing's People's Republic.

Beijing has threatened to attack the island if it moves towards formal independence.

Ngirablosch said Palau lawmakers had travelled recently to China and Macau, a former Portuguese-run enclave which reverted to Beijing in 1999, and Chinese officials had twice visited Palau.

One of those visits coincided with a September 2006 summit between Taiwan and its six South Pacific allies.

Among Palau lawmakers favouring ties with Beijing is one who is running for president next year, Ngirablosch added. But she said the pro-China legislators had made no formal proposals to change allegiance.

''Even though there's noise about switching ties, that doesn't mean the government has to address it,'' Ngirablosch said. ''I'm proud to say that most of us are well educated. We know the administrative structure of the Chinese government.'' Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phoebe Yeh said Taiwan officials would speak to the pro-China legislators and monitor any efforts by Beijing to ''destroy'' Taipei's diplomatic ties.

Taiwan consolidated relations with its six South Pacific allies at a summit in the Marshall Islands last month, pledging medical aid and long-term development assistance to its allies.

Palau has attracted Taiwan investment in fishing and tourism since the two governments established ties in 1999 after the archipelago emerged from US control.

REUTERS SZ SSC1257

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