Micronesia’s outgoing president calls to cut ties with China, recognize Taiwan

Stephen Wright
Micronesia’s outgoing president calls to cut ties with China, recognize Taiwan Micronesia’s President David Panuelo (left) with China’s Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Dec. 13, 2019.
[Noel Celis/Pool/AFP]

The Federated States of Micronesia’s outgoing president has called for his country to recognize Taiwan, according to a leaked letter that accuses Beijing of “political warfare” in the strategically located Pacific island nation.

The country of about 100,000 people has close ties to the United States and its President David Panuelo has previously expressed concern about Beijing’s attempt last year to forge a security and trade pact with 10 Pacific island nations.

Panuelo’s March 9 letter to state governors and members of Micronesia’s Congress said he met with Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu last month to discuss what Taiwan could offer in exchange for Micronesia’s diplomatic recognition.

The aim of the meeting was “to solicit from Taiwan what their potential assistance to the FSM could look like if we switched diplomatic relations to supporting them instead of China,” said Panuelo’s letter, which was obtained by BenarNews.

Panuelo said he proposed a U.S. $50 million injection to Micronesia’s national trust fund and annual financial assistance of U.S. $15 million. Taiwan would also “pick up” all current Chinese projects in Micronesia including construction of a national convention center and state government offices, his letter said.

“All of this assistance, of course, would be on top of the greatly added layers of security and protection that come with our country distancing itself from the PRC,” Panuelo said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. 

His 13-page letter alleged that China is aggressively seeking to undermine Micronesia’s sovereignty and institutions so that it would side with Beijing or at the least be neutral in a future possible armed conflict over Taiwan. 

The Asian superpower’s government, he said, has “demonstrated a keen capability to undermine our sovereignty, rejects our values, and uses our elected and senior officials for their own purposes.”  Micronesia established diplomatic relations with China in 1989.

Paneulo lost his seat in Congress in elections earlier this week, Radio New Zealand reported on Friday. His letter said a new government will take office on May 11.

‘Smears and accusations’

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s foreign minister confirmed in parliament on Friday that he had exchanged views on diplomatic recognition with Micronesia’s president, Taiwan’s state news agency reported. It’s unclear where a meeting between Panuelo and Wu took place. 

Taiwan’s foreign ministry said “the government respects and welcomes FSM [Federated States of Micronesia] expanding bilateral ties with Taiwan, but will not comment on the details on establishing official ties which the FSM president mentioned.”

China on Friday accused Panuelo of “smears and accusations” that “do not accord with the facts,” reported Agence France-Presse news agency.

“China has always treated all countries, big or small, as equal,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a briefing.

“The Chinese side is always willing – on the basis of the One China Principle – to uphold the principles of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, push forward friendly cooperation with Micronesia.”

Beijing considers Taiwan a Chinese province and repeatedly protests against involvement by “external forces” in cross-Strait politics.

The number of countries that recognize Taiwan has steadily dwindled over the past several decades under pressure from Beijing. 

Four of the 14 states that Taiwan lists as diplomatic allies are small Pacific island nations. In 2019, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan.

During the past two decades China has become a source of infrastructure, loans and aid for economically-lagging island nations in the Pacific as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and gain allies in international organizations such as the United Nations.

Beijing also hopes to establish a military presence in the Pacific in a challenge to American dominance, some analysts say. Last year, China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, alarming the U.S and Australia, which have stepped up their efforts to remain dominant powers in the region.

Micronesia, comprising dozens of islands, is one of three island nations in the northwestern Pacific that receive financial support from the U.S. government in exchange for defense and security under so-called compacts of free association. 

‘I have had direct threats’

As superpower competition in the region increases, Micronesia has faced mounting pressure to sign up to Chinese diplomatic initiatives in the Pacific, Panuelo’s letter said.

For instance, top Micronesian officials had experienced relentless harassment during the COVID-19 pandemic as part of Beijing’s efforts to ship Chinese-made vaccines to the country, he said.

“Simply put, we are witnessing political warfare in our country,” Panuelo said. “Over the course of my administration, the scope has increased, as has the depth, as has the gravity.”

Panuelo asserted that bribes and offers of bribes to Micronesian politicians by China’s embassy are commonplace and in the form of cash, free air travel and other gifts. 

Secessionist movements within Micronesia also are the recipients of Chinese funding, he said.

Officials compromised by Beijing had made audio recordings of meetings of Micronesia’s cabinet and shared them with the Chinese government, Panuelo alleged.

At a regional level, China had falsely claimed Micronesia was represented at a meeting between China and Pacific island governments in Fiji in July last year, the letter said. 

A Micronesian citizen did attend the meeting – which was held at the same time as a summit of the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum – but was not a representative of Micronesia’s government, according to Panuelo.

He also recounted being followed while in Fiji for the summit by two men who it was later ascertained were from China’s embassy there. One was a Chinese military intelligence officer who, it transpired, had previously met with members of Micronesia’s cabinet.  

“To be clear: I have had direct threats against my personal safety from PRC officials acting in an official capacity,” Panuelo said.


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