Taipei – Palau’s president on Monday compared the tiny Pacific nation’s ties with China to an abusive relationship as he reaffirmed he had no plans to drop Taiwan during an official visit to Taipei.
Surangel Whipps is in Taiwan to kick off what is being billed as Asia’s first travel bubble as his country seeks to boost its coronavirus-hit tourism.
Palau is one of only 15 nations worldwide that officially recognize self-ruled democratic Taiwan over China.
Beijing, which claims Taiwan, has used a mixture of threats and lures in recent years to try and encourage countries to swap allegiance.
Chinese tourists used to flock to Palau, but the influx dried up in 2018 as Beijing turned off the taps, a common tactic used to pressure countries.
Whipps said Chinese visitors gave Palau’s economy “a great boost” when they accounted for nearly half of tourists to his country but the boom was “like a teaser.”
“Next thing you know we were banned and tourism dropped,” he told reporters in Taipei.
“If you are in a relationship, I use this example — you don’t beat your wife to make them love you.”
“You should continue to build the relationship base on trust, to mutual benefits of both countries, and not be forced to do things because there is a political game that we are trying to play.”
Beijing opposes any official exchanges between Taiwan and other countries.
It has ramped up pressure on Taiwan since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen because she views the island as a de facto sovereign nation. China tourist numbers have also slumped for Taiwan.
For decades, China and Taiwan have vied for influence in diplomatic battlegrounds including the Pacific and Latin America, with both sides offering aid and support to small island states in return for recognition.
Beijing has successfully poached seven of Taiwan’s diplomatic, including two in the Pacific, since Tsai’s 2016 election.
Palau is among Taiwan’s four remaining allies in the Asia-Pacific region along with the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu.
Whipps said China’s carrot and stick approach is “counterproductive.”
“The carrots help in swaying people’s opinions. … But like I said, if you give the carrot, don’t tell me I cannot see that other person, cannot talk to that other person,” he said.
“We also believe nobody should tell us we can’t be somebody else’s friend.”
Whipps will return on Thursday with a group of 110 Taiwanese tourists for the start of weekly vacation travel bubble flights.
Taiwanese officials said the 110 slots in the first tour group to Palau were sold out.
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