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China intensifies Pacific offensive as Taiwan loses another ally

Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu speaks at a news conference in Taipei on Friday, announcing Taiwan's decision to terminate diplomatic ties with the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. (I-Hwa Cheng/Reuters)

HONG KONG — An intensifying Chinese government campaign to cut off Taiwan’s diplomatic partners yielded another casualty Friday as Taipei severed relations with the Pacific nation of Kiribati, reciprocating a step by the far-flung yet strategically important island state.

The move comes as Beijing seeks to isolate the Taiwanese government of President Tsai Ing-wen, who opposes closer political integration with China, ahead of a Jan. 11 presidential election on the democratically ruled island. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has refused to rule out retaking it by force.

Since Tsai took power in 2016, Beijing has used its growing influence and financial inducements to steadily pick off Taiwan’s dwindling list of diplomatic partners. The Solomon Islands this week switched allegiances from Taipei to Beijing, joining El Salvador, Panama, Sao Tome and Principe, the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso.

Solomon Islands recognizes Beijing as diplomatic stranglehold tightens around Taiwan

Taiwan said Kiribati’s government had notified it Friday that it was terminating relations. In response, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it “deeply regrets and strongly condemns the Kiribati government’s decision, which disregards the multifaceted assistance and sincere friendship extended by Taiwan to Kiribati over the years.”

The statement said that Beijing had lured Kiribati into switching diplomatic recognition by promising full funding, rather than loans, for airplanes and commercial ferries. It said Beijing’s aim was to destroy Taiwan’s sovereignty and force the island to accept a “one country, two systems” arrangement akin to the system of governance in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory.

Taipei said it was ending all bilateral cooperation and recalling diplomatic, technical and medical staff stationed in Kiribati.

Taiwan broke off in 1949 when communist forces overran China, forcing nationalist Kuomintang forces to flee to the island. Friday’s move by Kiribati leaves only 15 nations that recognize Taiwan diplomatically.

China, which vehemently opposes any moves toward Taiwanese independence, said Friday that it highly appreciates Kiribati’s decision to reestablish ties with Beijing.

“We support this important decision by Kiribati as a sovereign and independent nation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters at a regular briefing. “There is only one China in the world, and the People’s Republic of China government is the sole legal government representing the whole of China.”

China takes aim at U.S. and Taiwan in new military blueprint

China’s state broadcaster CCTV relished scoring two diplomatic coups in the same week.

“When it rains, it pours,” it said in a “hot take” post on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “Having consecutively been told ‘bye bye’ has without a doubt shattered Taiwanese officials’ glass heart.”

Beijing’s drive to cut off Taiwan’s diplomatic partners has fueled worries in Washington and among U.S. allies such as Australia. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a prominent critic of the Chinese Communist Party, said this week that he would explore ways to penalize the Solomon Islands for abandoning Taiwan.

Kwei-bo Huang, vice dean of international affairs at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, said China’s diplomatic campaign was an effort to thwart the Taiwan independence movement and disrupt the “increasingly salient supportive attitude of the United States toward Taiwan” in recent years.

Kiribati occupies a strategic location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, roughly halfway between the United States and Australia. The latter, along with Taiwan, has been a leading donor to Pacific nations, but Beijing is increasingly challenging that position in the Pacific as it woos small island states with promises of donations, loans and investment.

Geng, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Friday that relations between China and Pacific island countries were enjoying “rapid development.”

Remote and sparsely populated, Kiribati spans a vast marine area and is home to rich fishing grounds. Yet it is underdeveloped even by Pacific standards and dependent on foreign aid, which contributed roughly a third of government finances in 2016, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The country is perhaps best known as the scene of bloody fighting during World War II, when U.S. forces defeated the Japanese at the Battle of Tarawa. Later, the United States and Britain conducted nuclear tests in the archipelago during the Cold War, leaving a legacy of radioactive contamination.

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