TINY KIRIBATI PUTS DENT IN CHINA’S ARMOR

By Giff Johnson

For Marianas Variety

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Nov. 18) - It sounds more like a novel story line than reality: The so-called "one China" policy espoused by the government in Beijing in its testy relationship with Taiwan has come to a defining moment on a remote island group in the central Pacific.

On the tiny coral atoll of Tarawa, capital of the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced "keer-ee-bahs"), China operates a key satellite tracking station, built in the late 1990s. But because of Beijing’s rigid "one China" policy, the future of that base — which China says is a benign tracking facility that also supports its new manned-space flights, while critics worry that it’s used for spying on the American missile testing range just to the north in the Marshall Islands — is now in jeopardy with Kiribati President Anote Tong recognizing Taiwan fewer than two weeks ago.

Kiribati is, at least for the moment, the only nation in the world where the flags of China and Taiwan are both flying at nearby embassies — in direct contradiction of Beijing’s refusal to accord recognition to Taiwan or any of the 26 nations that recognize it.

"It’s an historical miracle," said Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Asia/Pacific Bureau director Gary Song-huann Lin in Majuro Saturday on his return from Kiribati, where he was involved in the lead-up to Kiribati’s agreement to recognize Taiwan.

"Never before have the two flags been flying together."

Since Nov. 7, when Kiribati extended diplomatic recognition to Taiwan and Taiwan immediately opened its embassy, China and Taiwan’s flags have been flying in Tarawa.

If China stays on, it "will reflect a flexible attitude" by Beijing, Lin said.

But China has been anything but flexible when it comes to official recognition of Taiwan, which it considers a "renegade" province. Taiwan calls itself "the Republic of China."

How long will it last? If it weren’t for the satellite tracking station, the Chinese ambassador would have been on the next plane out of Kiribati. But the strategic importance of this central Pacific nation has produced a dent, perhaps of short duration, in Beijing’s "one China" armor.

China isn’t taking Kiribati’s Taiwan move lightly. Late last week, Chinese Ambassador to Kiribati Ma Shuxue took the extraordinary action of breaking diplomatic protocol to distribute an open protest letter to the people of Kiribati, in an effort to influence them to withdraw their diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

"This is a gross violation of the One China principle" to which Kiribati agreed when it first established ties with China on June 25, 1980, Ma said in the letter.

He said China doesn’t object to unofficial trade and business ties with Taiwan. But if Kiribati doesn’t revert to recognizing only China, then his government will terminate its association with Kiribati, Ma said.

Clearly, however, China is caught in a strategic quandary that has the potential for global repercussions in Taiwan’s favor. When the Marshall Islands, Kiribati’s neighbor, recognized Taiwan in late 1998, China immediately pulled down the flag from its embassy and recalled its ambassador, though it still maintains an unofficial presence at its Majuro embassy.

The choice is not so clear cut for China because of the strategic importance it attributes to Kiribati.

Taiwan officials are clearly delighted with the spin-off benefits that are developing from its new ties with Kiribati. "We’re glad to see the two countries co-existing (in Kiribati)," Lin said. "I hope it will last."

Kiribati President Tong, however, made it clear in an address by radio to the country last week that his nation doesn’t want to get involved in the one-China dispute.

Kiribati is a small country that does not get too involved with the international politics, he said. Kiribati must be focused on its own priorities and foremost amongst these is economic development, he said.

This is the primary reason that Kiribati has chosen to establish ties with Taiwan, he said, while adding that Kiribati has not broken off relations with China, and hopes to maintain relations with Beijing.

Lin said Kiribati has seen that most countries in the Pacific region that have ties with Taiwan have benefited and developed economically.

"President Tong wants this for Kiribati," he said. Currently, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati recognize Taiwan.

Lin said Taiwan has no interest "to disrupt China’s space program." If the satellite tracking station closes, "it will be their own decision," he said.

Ma Shuxue blasted Taiwan, saying that its interest in ties with Kiribati was a self-serving attempt at "buying international recognition, fulfilling its program of splitting the motherland, and sabotaging the friendly relations and cooperation between China and Kiribati."

November 18, 2003

Marianas Variety: www.mvariety.com

 

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