On a Small Pacific Island, Chinese and Taiwanese Flags Fly

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

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A remote Pacific island nation has become the unlikely stage for a diplomatic tug-of-war between China and Taiwan, and as of Tuesday, it was believed to be the only country anywhere to house functioning embassies of the two bitter rivals.

Kiribati, a tiny nation comprising 33 atolls scattered across a vast area of the Western Pacific, recently became the 27th country to open diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

The Nov. 7 move by President Anote Tong shocked China, which has had diplomatic relations with Kiribati for the past 23 years and maintains an important satellite-tracking station there.

Taipei's handful of diplomatic allies - all developing nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America - are shunned by the mainland's communist government for violating its "one China" principle.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and works actively to deny it participation in the international community.

In Kiribati's case, however, Beijing has held off on shutting down its embassy - the largest building in the capital, Tarawa - and recalling its ambassador.

The reluctance is assumed to be directly linked to the importance of the six-year-old tracking station, which supports China's new manned space flight program.

China has denied speculation that the station is also fulfilling a more clandestine function, spying on an important U.S. missile testing facility at Kwajalein atoll, just 600 miles away.

On Tuesday, attach\'e9 Dazhi Guo at the Chinese Embassy in Tarawa confirmed by phone that the mission was still open and functioning fully.

A 15-minute drive away, a former motel called the Lagoon Breeze Lodge was Tuesday operating temporarily as the newly opened Taiwanese Embassy, a diplomat there confirmed.

The diplomat said it was remarkable that the Taiwanese and Chinese national flags were both flying at each country's embassies in the same foreign capital.

"We're calling it a miracle," he said, adding with a laugh: "Perhaps they [the Chinese] are following the "two China" idea here now."

The diplomat, who has been in Kiribati for about a month, said it was "exciting" to have the new embassy operating. Many locals had called to say hello, and there had also been a lot of contact with government officials.

Last week, Taiwan's foreign ministry appointed Chen Shih-liang as the country's first ambassador to Kiribati.

At the Chinese Embassy, Ambassador Ma Shuxue took the unusual step of distributing an open protest letter to the Kiribati people, urging a reversal of the decision to recognize Taiwan. The mission made a copy available Tuesday.

Ma said the new Kiribati government, which took over four months ago, had instituted "a drastic change of policy" by deciding to recognize Taiwan, after three previous administrations had upheld the "one China" policy.

He accused Taiwan of engaging in "political tricks" and "checkbook diplomacy" - buying diplomatic allies by offering financial inducements - and said those it had managed to buy off were "either economically backward or politically unstable."

Ironically, Ma then outlined the way relations with China had benefited Kiribati financially, through unconditional loans, "free economic and technical assistance," help with expanding an international airport and building a sports stadium, and debt relief to the value of 50 million yuan ($6.04 million).

Kiribati now faced a choice between China and Taiwan, the ambassador said.

"The Chinese side will never tolerate a situation of 'two Chinas' ...[and] will not tolerate two 'Chinese embassies' exist[ing] in one same country."

Kiribati should rescind its recognition of Taiwan, he said, concluding: "The decision now rests with the good and friendly people of Kiribati."

'A worthy addition'

Kiribati makes up the former Gilbert, Line and Phoenix islands, and has a population of 96,000. It declared independence from Britain in 1979.

Tong, the president, said in a radio address earlier he hoped relations with China could be maintained.

The sentiment was echoed by Taiwanese government officials, although the foreign ministry said in a statement posted on its website that this was unlikely, "given the communist regime's dogged insistence on the 'one China' principle."

The ministry said some Taiwanese had questioned the value of establishing ties with a country just three times the size of Taipei, but countered that it was "a worthy addition" to the list of diplomatic allies.

"It is hoped that the Pacific island nation will lend Taiwan a helping hand in its attempts to join international organizations," it said. "Due to China's obstruction, Taiwan has been refused entry to the United Nations and other world bodies for decades."

Taiwan lost its U.N. seat to mainland China in 1979.

Foreign ministry spokesman Richard Shih said earlier that Taiwan would fully respect Kiribati's decisions about the future of the Chinese satellite-tracking station.

The question of the station and its alleged spying activities has emerged from time to time, most recently during the presidential election campaign four months ago.

The station is the closest Chinese facility to the Ronald Reagan Missile Test Site in the Marshall Islands, which is playing an important role in testing Washington's ballistic missile-defense program.

China does not have diplomatic relations with the Marshall Islands, which recognized Taiwan in 1998.

On that occasion, China immediately lowered the flag at its embassy in the capital, Majuro, and recalled its ambassador, according to published reports.

See earlier story:
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