China restores ties with Kiribati, site of space tracking station

NEW YORK (Reuters) - China and the Pacific island state of Kiribati restored diplomatic ties on Friday after the former diplomatic ally of Taiwan abandoned Taipei.

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A poor but strategic country which is home to a mothballed Chinese space tracking station, Kiribati announced last week that it was cutting relations with self-ruled Taiwan in favor of China, which claims Taiwan as a wayward province with no right to state-to-state ties.

China and Kiribati had ties until 2003, when Tarawa established relations with Taipei, causing China to break off diplomatic relations.

Up until that time, China had operated a space tracking station in Kiribati, which played a role in tracking China’s first manned space flight.

The Chinese government’s top diplomat State Councilor Wang Yi and Kiribati’s President Taneti Maamau signed a communique on restoring diplomatic relations at the Chinese mission to the United Nations in New York.

“We highly prize this important and the correct decision,” Wang told a news conference. “Let’s hope for our friendship to last forever. We will work together to grow together toward a bright and prosperous future.”

Speaking alongside Wang, Maamau said there was much to learn from China.

“I do believe that there is much to learn and gain from the People’s Republic of China and the re-establishment of our diplomatic relations is just the beginning,” he said.

There was no mention of the space tracking station at the news conference, nor in the joint communique between the two countries released by China’s Foreign Ministry.

China’s space program is overseen by the military.

China’s Defence Ministry this week declined comment on the Kiribati facility.

Last week was difficult for Taiwan, as the Solomon Islands also ditched it for Beijing. The Solomon Islands foreign minister signed a deal on diplomatic ties in China last Saturday.

Both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati are small developing nations but lie in strategic waters that have been dominated by the United States and its allies since World War Two. China’s moves to expand its influence in the Pacific have angered Washington.

A former Taiwanese ambassador to Kiribati, Abraham Chu, told Taiwan’s Central News Agency last weekend that China had never fully removed the tracking station in Kiribati and that it “could come back at any time”.

Taiwan now has formal relations with just 15 countries, mostly small and poor nations in Latin America and the Pacific, including Nauru, Tuvalu and Palau. China has signaled it is coming for the rest of Taiwan’s allies.

Reporting by Michelle Nicols; writing and additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall