Micronesia’s president accuses China of bribery and ‘political warfare’

Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo

Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo (right) shakes hands with Chinese Ambassador Huang Zheng (left). Photo from the Facebook page of the Office of the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, posted on December 12, 2022.

David Panuelo, the outgoing president of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), penned a 13-page letter addressed to state governors and other local leaders accusing China of engaging in bribery and “political warfare” in the Pacific region.

Because Panuelo lost his reelection bid on March 7, his term as president will expire in May. He sent his letter on March 9.

FSM is a Pacific territory comprising 600 islands and islets with a population of around 115,000. It is located northeast of Australia and receives financial aid and security guarantees from the United States.

Under Panuelo’s leadership, FSM became part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative which led to the launching of agricultural technical assistance projects, “friendship stadiums,” and the reconstruction of several roads and bridges.

But Panuelo’s letter alleged that China has sinister motives for expanding its presence in the Pacific.

I believe that our values are presently being used against us as Micronesians and against our national interests.

…we are witnessing political warfare in our country we are witnessing Grey zone activity in our country. over the course of my administration, the cope has increased as has the depth, as has the gravity.

Panuelo revealed that “grey zone” activities include deploying Chinese research vessels within FSM’s maritime territories, whose actual mission is to spy, map potential resources, and chart submarine routes.

He said that he opposed the “Deepening the Blue Economy” memorandum of understanding proposed by China because it would open the door to China to “begin acquiring control of our nation’s fiber optic cables as well as our ports.”

He added that China uses its vast resources to bribe Pacific leaders.

One of the reasons that China's political warfare is successful in so many arenas is that we are bribed to be complicit, bribed to be silent.

…What else do you call it when an elected official is given an envelope filled with money after a meal at the PRC [People’s Republic of China] Embassy or after an inauguration? What else do you call it when a senior official is discretely given a smartphone after visiting Beijing? What else do you call it when an elected official receives a check for a public project that our National Treasury has no record of and no means of accounting for?

He mentioned the risk he took by writing this letter:

I am acutely aware not informing you of all this presents risks to my personal safety, the safety of my family, and the safety of the staff I rely on to support me in this work. I inform you regardless of these risks because the sovereignty of our nation, the prosperity of our nation, and the peace and stability of our nation, are more important.

The Chinese government has officially denied the allegations. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said during a press briefing:

We noted relevant reports, in which the smear and accusations against China are completely inconsistent with the facts.

She also stated that China stands ready to work with the FSM to enhance friendship and cooperation.

In a statement, Chinese Ambassador Huang Zheng insisted that the allegations in the letter were a clear misrepresentation of facts and slander.

In an interview with RNZ News, University of Hawai’i at Moana associate professor Tarcisius Kabutaulaka noted the significance of what Panuelo divulged in the letter; but, at the same time, suggested his recent election defeat also undermined the statement.

It [allegations] is significant, especially from the leader of a country that has diplomatic relations with PRC.

But it is unfortunate that he made the statement on the eve of his presidency and as he is leaving office. This could therefore be read and therefore dismissed as the views of someone who has just lost the election and therefore looking for someone to blame.

Panuelo is not the first Pacific leader who criticized the actions of China in the region. For example, opposition groups in Kiribati and the Solomon Islands have previously questioned the sudden expansion of China’s security-related and political activities in their countries.

For its part, China said it respects the sovereignty of Pacific nations and that it views them as equal partners.

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