Taiwan’s surprise election result could make for interesting new dynamics in the all-important relationship with Papua New Guinea, Mcfaddean Aoraunisaka writes.
On the eve of Taiwan’s general election this January, Papua New Guinea (PNG) opened a trade representative office in Taipei – – an important move, considering the timing, and the up and down history behind Taipei and Port Moresby relations. The surprise result in Taiwan’s election makes the future of relations even more interesting.
Taipei-Port Moresby relations have been a bittersweet symphony throughout their history. The conduct and management of the relationship has coincided with some major political power plays in both places. This includes PNG’s Prime Minister Bill Skate losing his seat in 1999 and Taiwan’s Foreign Affairs Minister James Huang resigning from his seat in 2008. Despite seeming trivial, the PNG-Taiwan relationship is actually important in its own right and can often be used as a political tool.
After independence in 1975, Papua New Guinea recognised the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The relationship with Beijing has continued, including diplomatic recognition, trade and investment, and development aid.
On the other hand, the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan, opened a trade mission in Port Moresby in 1990. And on 22 May 1995, the two countries formalised ties by signing a joint communique in accordance with international laws and practices regarding principles in economic, trade, technical and international cooperation.
Like most Pacific Island nations finding their way with the One China Policy, PNG has been caught up in the diplomatic wrangling between Beijing and Taipei. In 1999 PNG, under the prime ministership of Bill Skate, briefly recognised Taipei’s sovereignty, only for it to be quickly revoked by Mereke Morauta after Skate resigned a week later. Morauta only recognised the PRC. His successor, Michael Somare preferred more formal trading relations with ROC, and in 2002 sent a trade delegation to Taipei, invoking diplomatic protest from Beijing. And again under Somare, in 2005 PNG was among the nations supporting Taiwan’s bid to join the World Health Organization. This was again meet with a diplomatic protest from Beijing.
In 2008 PNG’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Abal refuted any attempt by Taiwan to switch PNG’s recognition from Beijing to Taipei. In a statement he said: “We recognise the People’s Republic of China. That has not changed even now. So if some people have been flogging the position of PNG, definitely they do not have the support of the cabinet, or the government.” This is worth noting as it had major ripple effects in Taipei, resulting in the resignation of Taiwan’s Foreign Affairs Minister James Huang, following revelations of a controversial scandal involving around USD$30 million in public money used in a failed attempt to get PNG’s recognition of Taipei.
Despite all this, Taiwan has maintained a flourishing Trade Mission in Port Moresby. In 2013 Gia Huk, PNG’s Director of Finance and Administration, led a delegation to Taipei exploring opportunities to learn from Taiwan’s advanced information communications and technology (ICT) sector PNG also signed trade deal with Taiwan to strengthen business relations between the two countries. A trade fair was organised, with 20 Taiwanese companies displaying their latest high-tech products. The two countries are also opening doors to cultural exchanges.
The positive result of continuous exchanges between Taipei and Port Moresby saw PNG opening its Trade Mission in Taipei in December 2015, a move justified by increasing trade and exchange between the two countries.
Papua New Guinea’s imports from Taiwan stood at US$700.37 million at the end of 2014. On the other hand PNG’s imports from China at the end of 2014 were valued at US$281.24 million. Exports to China were valued at $1.3 billion at the end of 2013, while exports to Taiwan reached US$690.11 million – representing a whopping increase of 7,218.24 per cent.
But, while the opening of PNG’s Trade Office in Taipei was a sound move, many have overlooked the political significance, timing and electoral implications. Given the nature of the relationship between Taipei and Port Moresby, the timing of the Trade Office’s opening raises some significant questions.
First, the scandal resulting in Minister Huang’s resignation was during the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) rule under Chen Shui-bian. It could be that the opening of PNG’s trade office was a calculated move by the then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party to portray themselves as building better foreign relations, and to remind the Taiwanese electorate of the scandals during DPP’s rule.
Second, with KMT’s stunning setback in the recent elections, and with many predicting a shift, why did Taiwan’s government of the day decide to open the trade office? Whose timing were they playing by, Port Moresby’s or Taipei’s? Outside observers can only assume that it was Taipei’s planning, to end 2015 on high note and welcome 2016 with a new friendship. But now the DPP has won the election, it’s worth remembering their past relationship with PNG has not been so good.
The brief, selected historical diplomacy between Taiwan and PNG reminds observers, policy advocates and electorates that even countries like Papua New Guinea, with no diplomatic recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty, can be important players in Taipei’s foreign policy and interactions.