LITTLE KIRIBATI WORRIES ABOUT CHINESE INTERFERENCE

By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AFP, July 5) - A small Pacific nation, Kiribati, which switched its diplomatic ties from China to Taiwan last year, now fears Beijing might try to influence a change of government, Kiribati President Anote Tong said Monday.

When Tong became president last November, Kiribati switched to Taiwan, forcing China to close and dismantle a satellite-monitoring base on the main atoll of Tarawa; but the embassy remained, with three diplomats as caretakers.

Tong said when he made the switch an unprecedented protest march was staged and he said he believed China had been behind it.

"We are watching out at the political environment here because they did participate in the last process," Tong told AFP in a telephone interview. "They continue to hope there will be a reversal of the situation, a change of government, I guess."

He later added: "We have to keep an eye out on what their real role is, what the role they are playing... It is very dangerous."

Tong said the continued presence of the Chinese diplomats in Kiribati has made the government nervous.

"We are a small country, with a big country like that, and we are a little nervous. I think we ought to be given the opportunity of not being manipulated into any situations."

Tong said the embassy had imported a "large amounts of cargo, container loads".

He did not know what was in them or their total quantity.

"So we ask why are three people care-taking the embassy building (requiring) that amount of goods?"

The Chinese Embassy telephone number was unanswered Monday.

Kiribati, which straddles the Equator and the International Dateline and is formally known as the Gilbert Islands, is made up of 33 atolls and a single high island with a combined land area of 811 square kilometers (324 square miles).

Last year, its 100,000 people were drawn into a protracted political battle which saw the incumbent president Teburoro Tito lose office after six years with Tong taking over.

During the protracted election process last year then Chinese Ambassador Shuxue Ma said he had donated AUS$5,132 (US$2,848) dollars to a cooperative society aligned to Tito.

The donation and the presence of the satellite base were election issues.

Tong said Monday that he presumed the continued presence of the Chinese diplomats was based on Beijing's hope for a change of government.

"We will be reviewing the situation because we interested to as what their continued presence means and it would only suggest that they are hoping one day to be able to come back."

Asked if the government would have to expel the diplomats Tong said, "It might be a possibility. I think we have to keep an eye out on their real role; the role they are playing in staying back."

He added that if China were willing to sell the embassy building, the Kiribati government would be able to find a buyer.

Although remote, Kiribati's position on the Equator makes it attractive for the aerospace industry.

The giant Sealaunch, a Boeing led consortium, launches satellites from a converted oil rig near Kiribati, while Japan's National Space Development Agency plans to build a space station on an isolated atoll.

Tarawa is around 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) south of the U.S. Army missile-testing base at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

A vast base, it is used for testing ballistic missiles fired from California and developing missile defense systems.

July 7, 2004

Agence France-Presse/Michael Field: http://203.97.34.63/

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