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CARIBBEAN: China, Taiwan Fight for Hearts and Minds

Bert Wilkinson

Jul 5, Jul 5 2007 (IPS) - A bitter debate has erupted in the former Dutch colony of Suriname as to whether the country should maintain its long-held diplomatic relations with mainland China or dump it for Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province rather than an independent nation that should be allowed to sit at international forums like the United Nations.

The latest battle as to which China – The People’s Republic or the Republic of China -should have the right to maintain an embassy in the small South American nation of 480,000 is playing out under the gaze of the 15-nation Caribbean Community just weeks after a very public fight between the two came close to disintegrating St. Lucia’s seven-month-old administration.

The tug-of-war was so politically damaging for the St. Lucian government, which came to power with some backroom funding from Taiwan, that it eventually fired Foreign Minister Rufus Bousquet and downgraded the status of two others for leading the pro-Taiwan rebellion.

Then, as now, Taiwan had been quietly walking the corridors of power, donating money to charitable causes, offering delegations fully paid trips to Taipei, and willing to help on any front – even if not asked.

In the end, most of St. Lucia’s cabinet voted to dump China in favour of Taiwan, which had, just 10 years earlier, itself been the victim of a cabinet vote that had unceremoniously unseated Taiwan for China.

Now Suriname’s multiparty, multiracial coalition is under similar pressure, as some of the coalition members are leaning publicly in favour of relations with Taiwan.

A Surinamese delegation comprising legislators and other top government officials is preparing to travel to Taiwan on a visit that the Ronald Venetiaan Administration has made plain it has not sanctioned and is not for a moment an official visit.

Reacting to the announcement, the Chinese government summoned Isaak Soerokarso, Suriname’s ambassador to China, to the ministry to explain the latest developments and to indicate whether its diplomatic status was under threat, as some have perceived.

A similar scene played out in Paramaribo, Suirname’s capital, where a delegation from China’s embassy met with the Permanent Secretary of Suriname’s foreign ministry to express disappointment with the visit to Taipei.

The visit came just weeks after Venetiaan had ordered Vice President Ram Sardjoe to lead an “official team” to China in a clear show of support to reinforce its political and diplomatic position. Deputy Assembly Speaker Caprino Alendy is in the delegation to Taiwan.

Alendy’s Assembly boss, Paul Somohardjo, says that his own coalition party is holding firm with the country’s “One China” policy until after general elections in 2010 at the earliest.

“What the government will do after 2010 is yet to be seen,” he said, chiding China slightly for the enormous pressure it has placed on government to stay in line and for trying to determine which country Suriname should have bilateral relations with.

“Not because I am your friend, it means that your enemy should be my enemy also,” he said.

The vice president returned home with loan and grant aid agreements worth around 30 million dollars. Taiwan has been offering development support worth 300 million dollars. This is the reason why legislators like Alendy had been pushing the government to abandon “its tunnel vision” towards China.

Suriname will also get assistance setting up a container scanning port and to pave a road from the city to its southern gold and diamond-rich interior – incidentally a project that Taiwan had offered to fund.

In the last decade, Taiwan has lost Grenada, the Bahamas and Dominica to China, but has gained back St Lucia.

Costa Rica also gave it marching orders, saying the future rested clearly with Beijing rather than Taiwan, which the government there regarded there as nothing but a rebel province that would eventually return to the fold.

The departures of Dominica and Grenada were particularly hurtful to Taiwan as it had invested millions in their agricultural sectors and set up virtual diplomatic bases to serve the region. The general policy of Caricom, the regional trade bloc, is to go for China. St. Vincent, St. Kitts, Belize and Haiti, all Caricom members, still recognise Taiwan.

In another sign that the region is closely watching the contest, the Barbados Nation Newspaper recently editorialised on the latest situation, pointing to pressures governments are facing to stick to established policy.

“Both Taipei and Beijing have been engaged in what is evidently fierce competition to win the hearts and minds of people across the globe. In varying degrees they both qualify for favourable consideration and even wider acceptance through involvement in a series of economic and cultural initiatives across the Caribbean region and further afield. It is impossible to miss their help with substantial state financing, construction, agriculture and cultural development,” the paper said.

Feeling the strains of the diplomatic tussle, the Surinamese government says it wants the whole affair to end positively because it is bringing shame to a proud nation.

“We are embarrassing ourselves internationally. I’m not sure if the president should take the initiative, but certainly this issue should be resolved at the political level,” said Foreign Minister Lygia Kraag-Keteldijk.

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