New York: A Chinese couple plotted to set up a mini-state on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, bribing MPs and officials along the way, US prosecutors said, as per a media report.
The man and woman tried to persuade the lawmakers to set up a “Semi-Autonomous Region” (SAR) on a remote atoll, BBC reported.
Such a zone would have expanded foreign access to the Pacific nation, which was administered by the US until 1979, the report said.
The Marshall Islands government is yet to fully address the accusations, despite calls from opposition parties.
But US authorities said the defendants – Cary Yan and Gina Zhou – undermined the island nation’s sovereignty.
Their efforts saw bills supporting the SAR’s creation debated in the Marshall Islands’ parliament in 2018 and 2020, US prosecutors said.
The prosecutors alleged that several Marshall Island lawmakers, unidentified in the chargesheet, voted for the bills after receiving bribes ranging from $7,000 to $22,000.
The couple was detained in Thailand in 2020 and extradited to the US last week.
“Yan and Zhou’s bribes blatantly flouted the sovereignty of the Republic of Marshall Islands and its legislature,” said US Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York, BBC reported.
The Marshall Islands, a chain of islands located between Hawaii and Australia, gained independence in 1979 after being under US administration for four decades.
It remains a key strategic base for Washington in the Pacific, where the US has some security alliances in place but China is seeking to expand its influence.
Prosecutors said the two defendants operated a New York-based NGO through which they paid and liaised with Marshall Islands officials, BBC reported.
Starting in 2016, they contacted island representatives in a bid to create an SAR on the Rongelap atoll – an area abandoned following US hydrogen bomb testing in the 1950s.
US authorities said Yan and Zhao aimed to “significantly change the laws on the island”, such as by cutting taxes and relaxing immigration restrictions, to attract foreign investment.
They alleged the pair wined and dined at least six Marshall Island officials and lawmakers, paying for flights and hotels in New York as well as in Hong Kong, where the officials attended a conference promoting the SAR, BBC reported.