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Regional News

President says Marshalls facing pressure from China

MAJURO (RNZ Pacific/Pacnews) — The Marshall Islands is being targeted by Chinese economic pressure, including dubious illegal ship visits and a proposed semi-autonomous district, says the country’s president, Hilda Heine.

President Heine’s remarks — which came during talks in Washington with Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia — are the latest in a series of protestations of Beijing’s sway by Micronesian leaders, threatening to disrupt careful efforts by U.S officials keen to downplay China’s rise.

“Admiral Davidson was spot on when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Freely Associated States are threatened by the use of Beijing’s economic leverage,” Heine said on Tuesday, in reference to the U.S Navy commander, Philip Davidson.

“We deal with illegal ship entries, supposedly for fishing,” added Heine during a meeting with acting U.S Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Palau President Tommy Remengesau and FSM President David Panuelo.

According to transcripts of the meeting, President Heine was the only leader to directly raise the issue of Chinese influence, a topic senior U.S officials had said was unlikely to be raised during talks with President Donald Trump.

Still, her comments come just days after President Remengesau of Palau wrote an opinion piece in U.S political newspaper The Hill saying the U.S Freely Associated States were part of a strategy to counter China’s expansionism and militarization, which threatened to break out into war in the Western Pacific.

Remengesau’s description of the U.S Indo-Pacific strategy — widely tipped by analysts as a counter to China — are at odds with the official U.S line that it is in response to no particular country but rather about ensuring equal sovereignty.

The Marshall Islands and Palau are among the few nations with diplomatic ties with Taiwan which is considered by China as a “renegade province.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, Heine also criticized China for bringing Marshallese leaders to Beijing and “proposing a special administrative district with autonomy from our government and promising to build a port and 1,000 homes.”

She did not elaborate further on her remarks but they appeared to refer to the Rongelap Special Administrative Region, a proposed plan to establish a semi-autonomous tax-haven on Rongelap, a remote group of islets in the Marshall Islands.

The plan — put up last year by a little known Chinese businessman and a group of Marshallese members of parliament — was canned by Heine’s administration over concerns it would breach the country’s international financial transparency commitments and lead to money laundering.

Heine later said Chinese interests backing the plans were responsible for a motion of no-confidence against her, which she narrowly survived, although she presented no evidence to back the claim.

“We are a small country and it is easy for foreign elements to influence individual people,” she told RNZ Pacific in November.