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The scourge of chequebook diplomacy

By Greg Barns - posted Monday, 8 May 2006


The Chinese community of Honiara is surveying the destruction of their lives, rent by mindless hooliganism in the Solomon Islands' capital over the past few weeks. And Australia is continuing to blame Taiwan and Beijing for meddling in the country's internal politics.

The announcement that Snyder Rini would be the country's new prime minister sparked the looting and rioting that destroyed the Chinatown area of Honiara. The Chinese community felt the ire of the anti-Rini forces, who think Mr Rini and his government are too heavily influenced by Taipei - and by local Chinese business interests in this impoverished Pacific country of half a million people.

These claims appear to have fallen on fertile ground in Australia. That's because Australia, along with New Zealand, has taken a leading role in trying to stabilise the troubled Pacific state over the past five years and now sees its efforts being undermined. Many in the Canberra government and the Australian Labor Party opposition believe that Taiwan, with its "chequebook diplomacy", has undermined Australian-led efforts to link aid and security assistance to improved governance and transparency in the Solomon Islands.

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Unlike Australia, the Solomon Islands gives its diplomatic recognition to Taipei, not Beijing.

A leading Solomon Islands opposition politician - Joseph Tuhanuku, leader of the Solomons Labour Party - found supporters in Australia when he claimed that "Taiwanese dirty money" had found its way into the hands of pro-Rini candidates during the recent election.

"Taiwan is running a shadow aid program that is being used to corrupt our political processes, and the prime minister is fully colluding with them," he said.

Mr Tuhanuku's comments were credible, said Australian MP Bob Sercombe, the Labor Party's spokesman on Pacific islands affairs, last month.

In March, Mr Tuhanuku accused the Taiwanese embassy of working hand in glove with the previous prime minister, Sir Allen Kemakeza, "to lure members of the parliamentary opposition to either join the government or to become highly compromised members of the opposition".

These claims have been denied by the Taiwanese ambassador to the Solomon Islands.

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But Mr Tuhanuku's accusations were followed by other claims, from Clive Moore of the University of Queensland, an expert on politics in the islands. Dr Moore said that while Mr Rini was finance minister, he granted "hundreds of millions of dollars in duty exemptions" to Taiwanese businesses involved in retail, fishing and logging.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard also joined the debate. While not naming Taiwan, he clearly had it in mind when he said last month that "there are countries [outside the region] which have an interest in involving themselves and gathering allies and partners in the region - not necessarily with the longer-term interests of the region at heart".

It's fair to say there is genuine frustration and anger in Australian diplomatic, security and government circles about the involvement of Taiwan and Beijing in the island nation.

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First published in the South China Morning Post on May 2, 2006.



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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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