China, Taiwan Battle For South Pacific Diplomatic Supremacy

Chinese Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan is on a tour of the South Pacific, which includes visits to Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. Beijing is involved in a diplomatic fight with Taiwan, which has close relations with a number of South Pacific Island nations. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

The presence of such a high-ranking Chinese politician in the South Pacific shows how important the region is to Beijing. Competition for diplomatic recognition between China and Taiwan is intense across the Pacific.

Taipei has official relations with six Island nations, including Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands. The tiny republic of Nauru recently opened an embassy in Taiwan. Taipei has formal diplomatic relations with only 24 countries around the world.

China has established diplomatic ties with eight South Pacific governments, among them the largest island nations, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

Researcher Joel Atkinson from Melbourne's Monash University says both China and Taiwan use aid to exert influence.

"Virtually everything Taiwan does is in response or as a kind of attempt to out-maneuver what China's doing and vice-versa," he explained. " A lot of the time it comes down to China and Taiwan attempting to out-bid each other in order to establish or maintain their relationships."

Analysts believe money is the prime motivation for governments in the South Pacific to switch sides and that allegiances can be switched if the price is right.

The other key issue is access to the vast region's lucrative reserves of fish, minerals and timber.

Australia and New Zealand both recognize China, but are wary about the ambitions of both China and Taiwan in their backyard, fearing that outside interference and money could unsettle an already unstable region.

The competition has already directly affected political stability in the Solomons, when the government divided last year over split loyalties between Taipei and Beijing. China has persuaded Vanuatu to shift loyalties from Taipei to Beijing, causing a change of government in its wake, as occurred in Papua New Guinea seven years ago. In 2003, China lost the allegiance of Kiribati to Taiwan.

Despite these concerns both Australia and New Zealand see China as one of their most valuable trading partners. Vice-Premier Zeng Peiyan has visited Australia and New Zealand before heading to Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.