Haiti a diplomatic battlefield

2010-01-19 13:01

Taipei - Last week's earthquake in Haiti not only killed as many as 200 000 people and devastated its capital, but it has also turned the Caribbean country into a diplomatic battlefield for Taiwan and China.

Poverty-stricken Haiti is one of the 23 mostly small nations that recognise Taiwan, but China has been trying to woo it. Before the quake, China opened a trade mission in Port-au-Prince and deployed 142 police as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force there.

The January 12 earthquake has thrown the Taiwan-China diplomatic battle into the spotlight again as both sides are rushing search-and-rescue teams and aid to Haiti.

So far, Taipei and Beijing's donations to Haiti are about the same, but Beijing was ahead of Taipei in dispatching a search-and-rescue team and airlifting aid to Haiti.

The Chinese team flew into Port-au-Prince on Thursday while the Taiwan team arrived by way of the Dominican Republic on Saturday.

China sent a planeload of aid to Haiti on Saturday while Taiwan's chartered plane with aid left Taipei on Monday.

China's Foreign Ministry said Beijing overcame extreme difficulties in obtaining landing rights for its plane despite a lack of diplomatic ties with Haiti.

Post-quake reconstruction

Beijing's trade representative, Wang Shuping, and Li Chunlin, a member of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's work team in Haiti, visited Haiti's aviation bureau and persuaded it to issue a landing permit.

China has pledged cash donations of $4.4ms and $1m in aid for Haiti.

Taiwan has donated $5m cash and $364 000 worth of relief.

President Ma Ying-jeou said on Tuesday that Taiwan would try its best to help Haiti even though "no matter how much help we give, it is never enough in view of the devastation caused by the earthquake".

He, however, held out on whether Taiwan should scrap Haiti's debt, saying the loans were from Taiwan's banks, not the goverment. "As to whether we should reduce or cancel Haiti's debts, I have instructed the Foreign Ministry to carefully study it," he said.

Ma plans to visit Haiti to deliver aid when he flies to Honduras next week to attend the inauguration of president-elect Porfirio Lobo Sosa.

Taiwan officials said the island is also willing to help Haiti rebuild after the magnitude-7 quake, the strongest to hit Haiti in 200 years.

"But we must consult the Haitian government to work out the details for the post-quake reconstruction," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Chen Ming-cheng said.

Follow-up actions

Lee Ke-tsung, an associate engineering professor at Feng Chia University in Taichung, said Taiwan should send a team of architects and engineers to Haiti to plan reconstruction along with Haitian engineers.

"In rebuilding Haiti, we must draw experience from earthquake-prone nations like Taiwan and Japan," Lee said. "We must ask the Haiti government what type of buildings it needs and find out Haiti's quake-resistance standards."

So far, China has kept politics out of its dispatch of aid and a search-and-rescue team to Haiti, but has suggested Beijing and Taipei form a joint team.

Taipei rejected the proposal out of fear of giving the world the impression that it is part of China.

China regards Taiwan as its breakaway province awaiting reunification with the motherland, but Taiwan insists it is a sovereign country and its future must be decided by its 23 million people.

Since Taiwan and the mainland split at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, China has persuaded most of Taipei's diplomatic allies to drop Taipei and recognise Beijing.

Liu Bi-rong, a political science professor from Taipei's Soochow University, said Taiwan had nothing to worry about as far as China's search-and-rescue team in Haiti is concerned but China's follow-up actions should be closely watched.

"What we should worry about is if China will take part in the post-quake reconstruction," he said. "If China participates in the reconstruction and Haitians will be grateful to China, then China can exert influence on Haiti."

As to Taiwan's participation in Haiti's reconstruction, he said Taiwan should form a long-term strategy if it wants to safeguard its diplomatic ties with Haiti and prevent China from winning it over.