kingstown, st. vincent and the grenadines -- When the Yurumein-Taiwan Bridge a few miles north of here opened last month, nearly a third of this island chain's population turned out to celebrate.
The link at Rabacca means that tourists can reach the active La Soufriere volcano year-round, that investors can build luxury resorts and marinas along the pristine north coast beaches and that farmers in the lush interior mountains can get their produce to the Kingstown docks and airport.
Even better, the $8.5-million bridge was free, one of many gifts Taiwan has extended to small island states in the Caribbean in gratitude for recognition of the island's claim to independence from China.
Taiwan has been investing in and inveigling Caribbean countries since it lost its United Nations seat to mainland China in 1971. A decade ago, it had eight of the tiny island states' support in its bid for membership in the world body.
But as China has surged to become the fourth-largest economy in the world, it has begun outbidding Taiwan for the islands' allegiance, compelling St. Lucia, Dominica and Grenada to switch sides and embrace the one-China policy espoused by Beijing.
Taiwan has enjoyed trade and diplomatic contact with much of the developed world since breaking with China after the Communist takeover in 1949. It has representative offices in 130 nations, but only 24 countries recognize Taiwan as an independent country.
The dollar diplomacy has been a boon for the islands, helping them build airports, roads and schools and plant new crops to replace the banana trade that has fallen victim to globalization. Taiwan and China also contributed tens of millions to their respective backers to build stadiums for the Cricket World Cup that wrapped up Saturday in Barbados.
Some analysts say, however, that the region's inconsistency on the China question could undermine its quest for political and economic integration or could unduly influence domestic politics in a region still trying to find its own way after centuries of European colonization.
The 15-member Caribbean Community, known as Caricom, already is badly divided on many of its integration projects, with some islands more keen than others on harmonizing laws and economies of the bloc uniting 24 million people. Eight of the island states are taking part in the Caribbean Single Market and Economy, but even they don't all use the Eastern Caribbean dollar. Only two of Caricom's members have committed to the Caribbean Court of Justice.
"A structured regional relationship on trade, aid and investment with China, which is now indisputably an economic giant and which could offer much to the people of the Caribbean, ought not be delayed," said Ronald Sanders, a businessman and former diplomat from Antigua and Barbuda who has represented Caricom at the World Trade Organization.
He points out that mainland China is expected to be the fourth-largest source of global travelers by 2020, a market the tourism-dependent Caribbean cannot afford to ignore.
Cyp Neehall, editor of the century-old newspaper the Vincentian, doubts that St. Vincent and the Grenadines will be persuaded to drop Taiwan, at least in the foreseeable future. The relationship has survived three political leaderships and is in the thick of collaborating on a new international airport for Kingstown, the nation's capital, and the first cross-island roadway.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with just over 100,000 citizens, has had ties with Taiwan since 1981, two years after the Caribbean islands gained independence from Britain. Though three of their neighbors have reoriented toward Beijing and a few Hong Kong enterprises have subsidiaries here now, St. Vincent authorities say their allegiance to Taipei, Taiwan's capital, is built on more than money.
"First and foremost, our relations are based on the principles enshrined in the United Nations document -- respect for human rights and those things," said Patricia Martin, permanent secretary for foreign affairs, commerce and trade.
Fruits and flowers
Agricultural assistance from Taiwan in planting new fruits and flowers on the island has helped spare St. Vincent the economic blows sustained elsewhere in the Caribbean since the European Union phased out preferential trade terms for bananas from developing countries. Pineapples, melons, orchids and ornamental plants are sprouting in the rich volcanic soil and in proliferating greenhouses.
At Taiwan's hillside embassy overlooking Kingstown, Ambassador Jack Yu-Tai Cheng shows off a wax apple tree that has been introduced to St. Vincent. A pink-skinned Asian fruit the size of a cherry, the wax apple is among the new varieties attracting gourmet produce marketers in North America and Europe.
Taiwan's spending has been more in the form of aid, scholarships and credit, and comes without ideological strings attached, Cheng said. By contrast, he contended, China interferes with the domestic political agendas of its allies in the Caribbean.