China Cuts Ties with Pacific Nation, Loses Surveillance Base

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - China has severed ties with a small Pacific nation in retaliation for its decision to establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan, even though the move will cost Beijing a strategically located satellite tracking station.

The tracking station in Kiribati played a key role in China's first manned space flight six weeks ago. It was also rumored to be spying on an American missile range at Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands, some 600 miles away.

Reports last week said Chinese workers were dismantling the base.

Chinese media quoted an expert at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. as playing down the loss of the site, saying future space missions would not be affected.

China could either find another location in the region to build one, or it could send monitoring ships to fulfill the same function, Liu Dengyue told the Beijing Times.

On Saturday, China announced it was cutting its 23-year-old ties with Kiribati, three weeks after its government established relations with Taiwan.

Under its "one China" policy, Beijing refuses to have diplomatic relations with any country that recognizes the government of Taiwan, which the communist mainland regards as a rebellious province.

Kiribati brings the current number of Taiwan's allies to just 27. Five of those are in the Pacific - Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands.

Kiribati is not the first country to forfeit its ties with China because of a decision to recognize Taiwan.

But in its case, the island nation saw the rare sight of Chinese and Taiwanese embassies both operating in the same capital city, while Chinese officials pressed the Kiribati government to reconsider.

The government refused to back down, however, prompting the Chinese to shut their mission at the weekend.

China's last ambassador to Kiribati, Ma Shuxue, told the host government the establishment of relations with Taiwan went against the principles of the United Nations charter, grossly interfered in China's internal affairs, and seriously undermined China-Kiribati friendship, the People's Daily reported.

Kwajalein atoll is host to the Ronald Reagan Missile Test Site, which has played an important role in testing the ballistic missile-defense system being developed by the Pentagon. China is a leading critic of the missile defense shield plan.

Suspicions in about Chinese spying on the Americans from the Kiribati station were raised on and off since a former president leased the base to Beijing during elections for 15 years in 1996.

Late last year, China's top diplomat in Kiribati discussed the claims, which were raised in parliament, as "fabricated lies."

Adding to the concerns felt by some, a New Zealand-based satirical website at the time ran a spoof "news story" saying President Bush was planning to invade Kiribati.

The tongue-in-cheek article said Bush believed the Kiribati government was in the process of developing weapons of mass destruction and had dispatched the U.S. Navy.

Coming during an election campaign when questions had been raised about the alleged Chinese spying, the story was taken as true by some islanders, prompting the government to issue broadcasts assuring the population that an invasion was not imminent.

See earlier stories:
On a Small Pacific Island, Chinese and Taiwanese Flags Fly (Nov. 18, 2003)
Island Nation, Home to Key Chinese Tracking Station, Sides with Taiwan (Nov. 10, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow