Island Nation, Home to Key Chinese Tracking Station, Sides with Taiwan

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

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - In a move that has angered China, Kiribati has joined the small group of countries that have diplomatic ties with Taiwan -- a move that could be more significant than the Pacific island nation's size and remote location would suggest.

Beijing foreign ministry spokesman Zhang Qiyue at the weekend called the decision "an open betrayal" of Kiribati's diplomatic relations with the mainland, established in 1980, and warned of unspecified "serious consequences."

Reaction also came from China's ambassador to Kiribati, Ma Shuxue, who said the move undermined the foundation of friendly cooperative relations between the two countries, and urged the island nation's government to "redress this mistake."

As part of its campaign to isolate Taiwan internationally, China has traditionally broken ties with nations that recognize the island nation which it considers a renegade province. It does not tolerate "dual recognition" of China and Taiwan, although Taiwan does not object if one of its allies wants to have relations with Beijing too.

Kiribati's decision brings to just 27 the number of countries which currently have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Three countries -- Macedonia, Nauru and Liberia -- have cut ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing in recent years, so the Kiribati decision was hailed in Taiwan as a diplomatic victory for President Chen Shui-bian.

On paper, Kiribati would not seem to offer Taiwan much as an ally.

With a population of 96,000, it comprises 33 coral atolls (the former Gilbert, Line and Phoenix islands), scattered across a huge expense of the Pacific straddling the Equator, south-west of Hawaii.

One of the poorer countries in the world, Kiribati has few natural resources and gets up to half of its annual GDP from foreign aid. The capital, Tarawa, is crowded and dirty, and the Chinese Embassy is the town's biggest building.

Just two weeks ago, however, Beijing had cause to mention Kiribati favorably as it exulted in the achievement of becoming just the third nation to put a man into space.

Kiribati is the location of one of three Chinese foreign satellite monitoring stations, and played what Beijing said last month was a prominent role in maintaining communications with the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft as it orbited the globe.

The station is suspected of having a more controversial side, however.

For several years, locals have raised concerns that China was using the station to spy on a U.S. missile testing facility at Kwajalein atoll, in the neighboring Marshall Islands -- a close ally of the U.S., and also one of Taiwan's 27 diplomatic allies.

Kwajalein's Ronald Reagan Missile Test Site, about 600 miles away from the Chinese tracking station, has played a key role in testing Washington's developing ballistic missile-defense system.

Beijing is a bitter opponent of the missile defense plan, which the Pentagon says is necessary to protect the U.S. and its allies from the danger of missiles fired by rogue states. Taiwan is one of those allies which could benefit from the shield in the future.

The Kiribati tracking station was built by the Chinese military in 1997 and leased to the Chinese for 15 years by former Kiribati president Teburoro Tito, who was accused by political opponents of maintaining secrecy about the base and the lease deal.

Tito asserted that the station, which Beijing said was the first of its kind to be built outside the communist country, was not being used for any purpose other than to track the orbit of rockets launched in China.

Late last year, China's then ambassador to Kiribati, Yang Zhikuan, was quoted as saying that claims the station was being used to spy on the U.S. range in the Marshall Islands were "fabricated lies."

At the time, politicians had raised concerns in parliament, requesting that the agreement signed with China be put before lawmakers. The government refused, saying it was a "government-to-government matter," according to Radio Kiribati news reports.

Opposition lawmakers also voiced concerns that, because of the alleged Chinese spying, Kiribati could be drawn into any future U.S.-China conflict. Threats were made to close the station down if power changed hands.

The issue was again raised during a presidential election campaign in Kiribati four months ago, when news reports at the time said opposition candidate, Anote Tong, raised suspicions about it and about China's interference in the country's affairs.

Tong narrowly won the election, and soon thereafter negotiations with Taiwanese officials evidently picked up speed.

The decision was announced Friday by a Taiwanese foreign ministry spokesman Richard Shih, who said the two countries would develop cooperation in the fields of fishing, tourism, agriculture, education, culture and technology.

In its statement, Kiribati's foreign ministry said it hoped relations with mainland China would continue to prosper despite its recognition of Taiwan.

'Money diplomacy'

Reports from Taiwan citing Foreign Minister Eugene Chien suggest a behind-closed-doors battle to achieve the diplomatic coup, involving talks in Tarawa led by a top Taiwanese official.

Chien said a senior Chinese official, Assistant Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong, flew to Kiribati last week in an 11th hour bid to prevent the move.

Apart from gaining another supporter in international forums where it is routinely trounced by China, Taiwan will also gain at least one other important potential advantage from its new partner.

Kiribati's land area is only about four times the size of Washington DC, but the islands are scattered across more than three million square kilometers of sea. This raises the possibility of fishing rights, with the ability for Taiwanese vessels to dock in local ports for provisions.

As with other successes in the China-Taiwan diplomatic tug-of-war, the Kiribati move raised questions about incentives, with Beijing spokesman Zhang accusing Taiwan of pursuing an "unscrupulous policy of money diplomacy."

Taipei foreign ministry spokesman Shih described as false an article in the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper which charged that Taiwan had paid Kiribati's newly-elected president a gift of $100,000 and his party $852,000.

Ironically, a year ago the Chinese Embassy in Kiribati was denying charges brought by opposition politicians, who said Beijing was supporting Tito's campaign by using funds in a bid to influence voters to return him to power.

In July 2002, Taiwan lost another ally, Nauru, after it was reported China had offered the tiny country a better deal than Taiwan had.

Six months later, Nauru's cash-strapped government threatened to restore ties with Taiwan, but China managed to avert the move, reportedly by offering Nauru a substantial loan.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow