3 Taiwan officials quit amid scandal

The Baltimore Sun

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The foreign minister of Taiwan and two other top officials resigned yesterday over a botched attempt to win diplomatic recognition from Papua New Guinea, a scandal that has stirred public outrage against the outgoing government just two weeks before it is to step down.

Taipei was embarrassed by the public disclosure that about $30 million, which had been intended for Papua New Guinea in exchange for its switching diplomatic allegiance from Beijing, had disappeared.

While the resignations had little practical impact - the entire government leaves May 20 when President-elect Ma Ying-jeou is inaugurated - they underscore the depth of the scandal, the most severe during President Chen Shui-bian's eight years in office.

Foreign Minister James Huang tendered his resignation yesterday. Vice Premier Chiou I-jen resigned from the Cabinet a day after he left the Democratic Progressive Party and said that he would retire. Vice Defense Minister Ko Cheng-heng also resigned yesterday.

In 2006, the government wired the $30 million to an account in Singapore that was controlled by two middlemen who had been enlisted by Taipei for the secret diplomatic outreach to Papua New Guinea. After negotiations foundered, Taiwan requested the money back, but to no avail.

Now, one of the middlemen - Ching Chi-ju - is on the run. The government says it does not know what became of Ching or the money.

The diplomatic scandal is the latest in a series of blows to Chen's government, which has been deeply unpopular for its perceived mismanagement of the economy and a string of corruption cases. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party was badly beaten in elections in January and March.

"People feel humiliated by the government's incompetence," said George Tsai, a political analyst at Chinese Culture University in Taipei. "It's a joke to the outside world. How could the government be cheated like this? It's proof to many that they're a bunch of Boy Scouts and amateurs."

Huang, Chiou and Ko have acknowledged their involvement with the middlemen but denied any criminal wrongdoing. Their homes were searched early yesterday for evidence.

Chiou, the vice premier, had been one of the key players in the overture to Papua New Guinea. He insisted yesterday that he had not pocketed any money, amid reports in The United Evening News and other media outlets that some of the $30 million might have been designated as kickbacks for Taiwanese officials.

China considers Taiwan a renegade province, and Taiwan and China have long engaged in checkbook diplomacy to lure diplomatic allies to their sides. Taiwan and China refuse to establish official ties with countries that maintain ties with the other. All the major powers recognize Beijing, but the two sides have long competed for the allegiances of smaller countries, using promises of aid.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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