The outgoing leader of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), one of the world’s tiniest countries, has accused China of bribing officials and making “direct threats against my personal safety” as part of a bid to take over self-ruled Taiwan.
China later denied the accusations on Friday.
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In a 13-page letter sent to Congress and state governors, President David Panuelo accused Beijing of carrying out a campaign of “political warfare” that included overt activities and covert actions, including “bribery, psychological warfare, and blackmail”.
Panuelo, who will leave office in May, said China was seeking to interfere in the FSM to ensure that the country would align with Beijing, or remain neutral, in the event of a war over self-governing Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party claims as it territory.
The FSM, which is home to fewer than 115,000 people and located about 2,900km (1,800 miles) northeast of Australia, is independent but receives financial assistance and defence guarantees from the United States under a so-called compact of free association.
“The practical impacts, however, of Chinese control over our communications infrastructure, our ocean territory and the resources within them, and our security space, aside from impacts on our sovereignty, is that it increases the chances of China getting into conflict with Australia, Japan, the United States, and New Zealand, on the day when Beijing decides to invade Taiwan,” Panuelo said in the letter dated March 9, which was leaked to multiple media outlets and seen by Al Jazeera.
“To be clear, that’s China’s long-term goal: to take Taiwan. Peaceful if possible; through war, if necessary.”
Panuelo said he had been followed by Chinese men, one of whom was an intelligence officer, while attending the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji last year.
“You can imagine my surprise when I was followed this past July in Fiji during the Pacific Islands Forum by two Chinese men … and my continued surprise when I learned that I had multiple cabinet and staff who had met him before, and in the FSM,” Panuelo said.
“To be clear: I have had direct threats against my personal safety from PRC officials acting in an official capacity.”
Panuelo also accused Chinese officials of bribing local officials to be “complicit” and “silent”.
“That’s a heavy word, but it is an accurate description regardless. What else do you call it when an elected official is giving an envelope filled with money after a meal at the PRC embassy or after an inauguration? What else do you call it when a senior official is discreetly given a smartphone after visiting Beijing,” he said.
Panuelo also indicated he favoured officially recognising Taipei, which has only a handful of diplomatic allies, and said he had met Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu last month to inquire about what “potential assistance” his country could gain in the event of a switch.
“I was transparent with Foreign Minister Wu; we project we need an injection of approximately $50m to meet our future needs,” he said. “We can and will receive this, over a three-year period, if and when we establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan.”
Panuelo said Taiwan had agreed to provide funding and take over unfinished projects started by Beijing.
Beijing swiftly condemned the claims accusing Panuelo of “smears and accusations” that “do not accord with the facts”.
“China has always treated all countries, big or small, as equal,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular 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,” she added, referring to a principle by which countries that recognise Beijing do not have ties with Taiwan.
Small Pacific Island states such as FSM, which consists of about 600 islands scattered across the Western Pacific, have in recent years become battlegrounds for the growing geopolitical rivalry between China and the US.
A spokesperson from the FSM president’s office declined to comment.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it could not comment on its contacts with other countries, but compared to China’s “lip service promises” Taiwan had always adhered to the spirit of “practical diplomacy, mutual benefit'”.
“In the future, our country is willing to use the Taiwan model to assist Micronesia’s development, benefit their people’s well-being, and respect and welcome the expansion of bilateral relations,” it said in a statement.