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A former Marshall Islands president called for a corruption probe following revelations of an alleged plot by a Chinese couple to set up a mini-state serving as a tax haven in the island nation, the Guardian reported.
The Pacific country – a former US territory – got dragged into the spotlight after US authorities charged couple Cary Yan and Gina Zhou with bribery and money laundering. The couple was initially arrested almost two years ago but their indictment was only unsealed earlier this month.
The pair is accused of bribing five officials in the Marshall Islands and attempting to bribe a sixth in an effort to create an exclusive economic zone on the Rongelap Atoll.
The would-be “Rongelap Atoll Special Administrative Region (RASAR)” was going to become an exclusive economic zone with a similar designation to those given by China to Hong Kong and Macau. It would have acted as a foreign investment paradise that would provide relaxed immigration laws, low or no tax and was to improve the struggling Pacific nation’s place in the global economy.
The indictment said Yan and Zhou had bribed officials to pass a bill that would create RASAR – adding that the couple was also involved in its drafting.
On Thursday, Hilda Heine, the country’s former president and a current lawmaker, said the indictment did not specify the six legislators but urged authorities to investigate the matter.
Heine, who governed between 2016 and 2020, had opposed the creation of RASAR. She called the bill “unconstitutional” and warned that the proposal was “an effort by certain foreign interests to take control of one of our atolls and turn it into a country within our own country.”
As a result of the constitutional concerns put up by opponents, the RASAR bill was never introduced in parliament.
Although there was no indication that the Chinese government was involved in establishing RASAR, the matter has raised concerns about the growing influence of Beijing across the Pacific.
The Marshall Islands are one of the few nations to recognize Taiwan.