Vanuatu, a tiny cluster of Pacific islands, doesn’t tend to capture a major slice of the world’s attention. The sun-soaked chain is perhaps best known for its tourist trade and its 15 minutes of fame as the backdrop for a “Survivor” series on television.
In recent days, however, it has become a belle of the cross-strait ball as China and Taiwan open their checkbooks and compete for its loyalty.
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Mark Chen and Vanuatu’s prime minister, Serge Vohor, announced Nov. 3 in Taipei that they had agreed to establish diplomatic relations, in effect ending Vanuatu’s decade-long embrace of China.
Despite their split in 1949 at the end of a civil war, China views Taiwan as an integral part of its territory with no right to conduct foreign relations.
China quickly severs ties with any country that recognizes Taiwan. Besides Vanuatu, which consists of 80 islands northeast of Australia that are collectively the size of Connecticut, 26 countries -- mostly impoverished nations in Latin America, Africa and the Pacific -- recognize Taiwan. Those that recognize Beijing number 160.
The day after Vanuatu was apparently added to Taiwan’s column, however, Chinese spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue announced that Vanuatu was still in Beijing’s camp, quoting the South Pacific nation’s foreign minister. To hammer the point home, Chinese Ambassador Bao Shusheng warned that diplomatic ties with Taiwan would cost Vanuatu $10 million in aid.
This was quickly followed by a salvo from Taiwan. No, it said, Vanuatu was in fact Taiwan’s newest diplomatic partner. Taiwan has reportedly offered $30 million in aid.
Not to be outdone, China countered Thursday that Vanuatu, a nation of about 200,000, was back in its camp, having withdrawn its support for the earlier communique.
Oops. On Friday, a spokesman for the prime minister of Vanuatu said diplomatic ties with Taiwan remained in place, even as Taiwanese foreign affairs spokesman Michel Lu counseled citizens “not to panic” while the ministry figured out what was going on.
Analysts doubt that this is the last chapter.
“The mainland won’t give up,” said Zhu Xianlong, a professor at Macao University of Science and Technology. “They’ll try and do everything possible diplomatically to win back this tiny country.”
The diplomatic flip-flop also reflects an internal squabble in Vanuatu, a country that saw a former prime minister convicted of forgery and the current prime minister almost arrested in September in an incident that remains under investigation.
Vanuatu’s 13 government ministers claim that the prime minister cozied up to Taipei without their approval while Vohor’s office counters that it’s running the show.
“The prime minister went to Taiwan on a private trip and signed the agreement without the government’s knowledge,” said a senior Vanuatu official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This whole joke-like incident is very bad for our reputation.”
Meanwhile, the bidding has gone up.
According to some reports, China deposited $2 billion with the South Pacific state’s Reserve Bank in early November for “restructuring in education” even as Taiwan pledged $6 billion to spur Vanuatu’s economy, which is driven mostly by subsistence farmers known for their participation in unique religious cults.
These include the so-called cargo cults of Tanna Island, which trace their roots to 1942. That’s when about 1,000 locals, recruited by the U.S. to work on military bases during World War II, became awed by the huge volumes of war materiel and their first sight of African American soldiers. This image of abundant wealth gave rise to the “cargo cult,” whose members are said to believe that the ships will one day return and that money must be discarded, pigs killed and gardens left untended because all material needs will be met.
Some analysts argue that checkbook diplomacy is doomed to fail.
“The methods Taiwan uses, bribing countries and politicians, are unjust, violate international law and disturb the global community,” said Liu Guoshen, director of the Taiwan research center at China’s Xiamen University. “Bribery diplomacy won’t last.”
Others find the diplomatic competition preferable to Taiwan and China racing to provide allies with military aid.
“Taiwan is trying very hard to achieve international recognition,” said Ni Lexiong, a military expert with the East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai. “So for them, it’s worth it to spend all this money.”
Taiwan wants to maintain full diplomatic ties with at least 20 countries, more than 10% of the world’s total, to boost its claim to legitimacy, analysts say. Money is its primary tool.
China also uses money, but not as aggressively. Beijing wants to avoid bidding wars and has other tools at its disposal, the experts note, including its rising global status and its influence at the United Nations.
Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.