Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to three nations in the South Pacific has grabbed much media attention on both sides of the Taiwan Strait – with a mainland party mouthpiece hailing Tsai a renegade and local papers debating if the visit is more about doling out aid to the island’s few diplomatic allies to fend off approaches from Beijing.
Tsai also came under fire for her “high-flying” style after it was revealed that the President’s Office rented a business jet at a cost of NT$500,000 (US$16,553) per hour for the leader to travel in comfort.
Analysts say the highlight of Tsai’s visit was high-profile stopovers in Hawaii and Guam, which is unincorporated US territory, during which she attended luncheons and held talks with Senators on a hectic schedule that also included a tour of the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, where she paid respects to fallen sailors and Marines.
But speculation was rife as to which of the remaining 20 countries – mainly in Central America, the Caribbean and South Pacific – that still maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei, will follow suit after Panama shifted its loyalty to Beijing this June.
Hong Kong-based Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly) noted in its November issue that the Dominican Republic may be next, as the Caribbean country courts Chinese investment and tourists, even after Taipei announced it would donate US$35 million worth of military equipment, including two UH-1H helicopters, 90 Humvees, plus 100 generators, during Taiwan Defence Minister Feng Shih-kuan’s visit to the country in August.
Tsai told reporters that since many Humvees in the Taiwan army were reaching the end of their service life, those still in good working order had been donated to allies like the Dominican Republic, and the first batch would be shipped in January 2018.
It’s not the first time that Taipei has tried to woo diplomatic allies with generous economic and military aid.
The Taipei-based China Times revealed that as early as the 2000s, US-made F-5 supersonic light fighters and jet trainer aircraft like the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, were given by Taipei to its far-flung partners, even when the island’s own military was grappling with inadequate funding.
Back then, Taiwan also donated a large amount of weaponry, such as T91 assault rifles, which landed in the hands of insurgents in war-torn countries like Nicaragua and Haiti.
Sources familiar with military assistance said items to be donated were first categorised as classified supplies in the Defence Ministry’s budget and kept away from the media’s prying eyes.
All shipments were camouflaged when sent from Taiwanese ports and recipient countries often only needed to pay a nominal price to ”buy” the equipment, or merely some honorarium for Taiwan officials that coordinated the logistics.