Taiwan says China lures Kiribati with airplanes after losing another ally

TAIPEI (Reuters) - China offered airplanes and ferries to lure the Pacific island nation of Kiribati into switching diplomatic relations, Taiwan said on Friday, as the self-ruled island lost a second ally to Chinese pressure in less than a week.

Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu speaks at a news conference announcing Taiwan's decision to terminate diplomatic ties with the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, in Taipei, Taiwan September 20, 2019. REUTERS/I-Hwa Cheng

The switch, just days after the Solomon Islands cut ties, deals a fresh blow to President Tsai Ing-wen, who is seeking re-election in January, as it takes to seven the tally of allies lost to China since she took office in 2016.

Taiwan has terminated diplomatic ties with Kiribati and will immediately shut its embassy there, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told reporters.

“According to information obtained by Taiwan, the Chinese government has already promised to provide full funds for the procurement of several airplanes and commercial ferries, thus luring Kiribati into switching diplomatic relations,” he added.

China was trying to “suppress and reduce Taiwan’s international presence” and “ultimately destroy Taiwan’s sovereignty,” Wu said.

“It is blatantly obvious that the Chinese government, by creating these diplomatic incidents, seeks to manipulate public opinion in Taiwan, influence Taiwan’s upcoming presidential and legislative elections, and undermine its democratic processes.”

The Kiribati president’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China “highly appreciated” Kiribati’s decision to re-establish ties with Beijing, severed in 2003 when Tarawa recognized Taipei.

Asked how much money China was offering Kiribati, Geng said principles and trust could not be bought but added that Kiribati would have “unprecedented development opportunities” with China by its side.

China claims Taiwan as its territory, and says the democratic island has no right to formal ties with any country.

Friday’s switch leaves Taiwan with formal relations to just 15 countries.

“They have chosen to give up a sincere friend and become a chess piece for China. We think it’s a huge mistake,” Tsai told reporters, warning of more “Chinese intimidation” ahead of the vote in January.

“They have one single goal - to reverse the presidential campaign. They are trying to tell Taiwanese that we can’t buy jets, we can’t support Hong Kong and that we can only elect a president who bows to pressure from China.”

Since Tsai took office, China has stepped up pressure on Taiwan, by flying regular bomber patrols around the island, for example. China suspects Tsai of pushing for Taiwan’s formal independence, a red line for Beijing.

Aid requested by Kiribati from Beijing includes loans and a Boeing 737 aircraft, said a senior official in Taiwan with direct knowledge of the matter who sought anonymity.

Citing intelligence gathered by Taipei, the source said China aimed to peel away more of Taiwan’s allies before the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China on Oct. 1.

“That worries several countries in the region, including the United States and Australia,” said the official, citing fears over China’s growing influence in the Pacific.

Kiribati is the seventh country to drop Taiwan as a diplomatic ally since 2016, following Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, El Salvador and the Solomon Islands.

Taiwan’s main opposition, the China-friendly Kuomintang party, urged Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to review its policy toward Beijing.

“The DPP should examine the real cause behind the breaking of ties and propose a practical solution,” it said in a statement.

“It should not continue to shift the responsibility to the former ally, the mainland authorities or the opposition party.”

A spokesman for Taiwan’s presidential office said, “With the breaking of ties, China is forcing Taiwan to accept ‘one country two systems,’” referring to an arrangement that guarantees certain freedoms to the Chinese-ruled city of Hong Kong.

“The more Taiwan shows that it’s not being intimidated, the more it frustrates China’s scheme,” added the spokesman, Yun-kung Ting.

Reporting by Yimou Lee in TAIPEI; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING, Jonathan Barrett in SYDNEY and Tom Westbrook in SINGAPORE; Editing by Neil Fullick and Clarence Fernandez