Showering Caribbean with gifts

Times Staff Writer

kingstown, st. vincent and the grenadines -- When the Yurumein-Taiwan Bridge a few miles north of here opened last month, nearly a third of this island chain’s population turned out to celebrate.

The link at Rabacca means that tourists can reach the active La Soufriere volcano year-round, that investors can build luxury resorts and marinas along the pristine north coast beaches and that farmers in the lush interior mountains can get their produce to the Kingstown docks and airport.

Even better, the $8.5-million bridge was free, one of many gifts Taiwan has extended to small island states in the Caribbean in gratitude for recognition of the island’s claim to independence from China.

Taiwan has been investing in and inveigling Caribbean countries since it lost its United Nations seat to mainland China in 1971. A decade ago, it had eight of the tiny island states’ support in its bid for membership in the world body.


But as China has surged to become the fourth-largest economy in the world, it has begun outbidding Taiwan for the islands’ allegiance, compelling St. Lucia, Dominica and Grenada to switch sides and embrace the one-China policy espoused by Beijing.

Taiwan has enjoyed trade and diplomatic contact with much of the developed world since breaking with China after the Communist takeover in 1949. It has representative offices in 130 nations, but only 24 countries recognize Taiwan as an independent country.

A boon

The dollar diplomacy has been a boon for the islands, helping them build airports, roads and schools and plant new crops to replace the banana trade that has fallen victim to globalization. Taiwan and China also contributed tens of millions to their respective backers to build stadiums for the Cricket World Cup that wrapped up Saturday in Barbados.


Some analysts say, however, that the region’s inconsistency on the China question could undermine its quest for political and economic integration or could unduly influence domestic politics in a region still trying to find its own way after centuries of European colonization.

The 15-member Caribbean Community, known as Caricom, already is badly divided on many of its integration projects, with some islands more keen than others on harmonizing laws and economies of the bloc uniting 24 million people. Eight of the island states are taking part in the Caribbean Single Market and Economy, but even they don’t all use the Eastern Caribbean dollar. Only two of Caricom’s members have committed to the Caribbean Court of Justice.

“A structured regional relationship on trade, aid and investment with China, which is now indisputably an economic giant and which could offer much to the people of the Caribbean, ought not be delayed,” said Ronald Sanders, a businessman and former diplomat from Antigua and Barbuda who has represented Caricom at the World Trade Organization.

He points out that mainland China is expected to be the fourth-largest source of global travelers by 2020, a market the tourism-dependent Caribbean cannot afford to ignore.

Cyp Neehall, editor of the century-old newspaper the Vincentian, doubts that St. Vincent and the Grenadines will be persuaded to drop Taiwan, at least in the foreseeable future. The relationship has survived three political leaderships and is in the thick of collaborating on a new international airport for Kingstown, the nation’s capital, and the first cross-island roadway.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with just over 100,000 citizens, has had ties with Taiwan since 1981, two years after the Caribbean islands gained independence from Britain. Though three of their neighbors have reoriented toward Beijing and a few Hong Kong enterprises have subsidiaries here now, St. Vincent authorities say their allegiance to Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, is built on more than money.

“First and foremost, our relations are based on the principles enshrined in the United Nations document -- respect for human rights and those things,” said Patricia Martin, permanent secretary for foreign affairs, commerce and trade.

Fruits and flowers


Agricultural assistance from Taiwan in planting new fruits and flowers on the island has helped spare St. Vincent the economic blows sustained elsewhere in the Caribbean since the European Union phased out preferential trade terms for bananas from developing countries. Pineapples, melons, orchids and ornamental plants are sprouting in the rich volcanic soil and in proliferating greenhouses.

At Taiwan’s hillside embassy overlooking Kingstown, Ambassador Jack Yu-Tai Cheng shows off a wax apple tree that has been introduced to St. Vincent. A pink-skinned Asian fruit the size of a cherry, the wax apple is among the new varieties attracting gourmet produce marketers in North America and Europe.

Taiwan’s spending has been more in the form of aid, scholarships and credit, and comes without ideological strings attached, Cheng said. By contrast, he contended, China interferes with the domestic political agendas of its allies in the Caribbean.

Before Dominica’s 2005 election, Beijing pledged $112 million in aid to the tiny island of 70,000 on condition it drop recognition of Taiwan. The economic bait turned the campaign into a referendum on China policy, with Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit’s Labor Party winning reelection after breaking with Taipei.

Making China policy a partisan issue could backfire on Beijing, however. A change in government after a December election in St. Lucia has been accompanied by rumblings about returning to Taiwan’s Caribbean flock.

St. Lucia switched allegiances in 1997, when the pro-Beijing Labor Party came to power. But the latest election brought back the United Workers Party, which had recognized Taiwan for 13 years. Taiwan Foreign Minister James Huang visited St. Lucia in March, provoking Beijing to admonish the Caribbean island’s government for a diplomatic exchange that “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”

In Grenada, suspicions of political intrigue on the China issue were rife after the Grenadian police band played the Taiwanese anthem at a February ceremony inaugurating a 20,000-seat stadium built by Beijing. The band leader was forced to resign and the police commissioner to apologize to Chinese Ambassador Qian Hongshan.

But observers such as Neehall, the newspaper editor, scoff at the idea that the embarrassing incident was accidental, pointing out that Grenadian Prime Minister Keith Mitchell’s government has suffered from a perception that Taiwan would have been of more practical assistance than has China in the island’s struggle to rebuild after the 2004 devastation of Hurricane Ivan.


Neehall also expects his own country to stay within the Taiwan camp despite the growing pressures for a one-China policy in the Caribbean.

“Given what has been promised and what we have deduced is forthcoming, I don’t think a shift will be sooner rather than later,” he said of these islands.

‘Overwhelming presence’

None of the remaining Taipei backers appears at imminent risk of changing China tactics, although all have been approached by Beijing with aid and investment offers.

“We do recognize the overwhelming presence of the People’s Republic of China,” the Dominican Republic’s foreign minister, Carlos Morales Troncoso, said of his country’s recent establishment of a trade office in Beijing. “Our loyalty with Taiwan comes first. Nevertheless we have to recognize that China is a big reality in the area.”

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has been under pressure from Beijing to change its allegiance, with the communist government threatening to veto United Nations peacekeeping forces for the violence-racked country. But President Rene Preval, who took office less than a year ago, has shown no inclination to break a 50-year-old relationship with Taipei that has brought some of Haiti’s most important infrastructure projects to fruition.

Although regional analysts expect a common diplomatic strategy among the Caricom states to emerge with time, they acknowledge that it might be decades in the making and could prove elusive unless Beijing and Taipei reconcile.

“On the issue of Taiwan and China, the countries within Caricom have agreed to disagree,” said Martin of St. Vincent’s Foreign Ministry. “We are all sovereign countries, and those of us who have relations with Taiwan maintain that as our right and see it as in our best interests, and that has to be respected.”