China sees Kiribati ties soon, no word on space tracking station

BEIJING (Reuters) - China will formally resume ties soon with Kiribati, the foreign ministry said on Monday, following the Pacific island state’s decision to ditch relations with Taiwan.

FILE PHOTO: Lagoons can be seen from a plane as it flies above Kiritimati Island, part of the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, April 5, 2016./File Photo

But it did not say what will happen to a space tracking station that China used to operate in Kiribati and is now closed.

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.

Until then, China had operated the space tracking station in Kiribati, which played a role in tracking China’s first manned space flight in 2003, just before the suspension of ties.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not answer a question about what would happen with the former space tracking station.

On the timing of when China and Kiribati will formally resume diplomatic relations, Geng said: “What should happen will come sooner or later. Everybody should remain patient.”

“We look forward to resuming diplomatic relations with Kiribati and opening a new page in the two countries’ relations,” Geng said.

He said China also believed this would serve both countries’ people and would be beneficial for peace, stability and prosperity for Pacific island countries.

China has welcome Kiribati’s decision though the two have not yet officially signed an agreement to resume ties.

Last week was a difficult one for Taiwan, as the Solomon Islands also ditched Taipei for Beijing. The Solomon Islands foreign minister signed a deal on diplomatic ties with Beijing in China on 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, and 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 over the weekend that China had never fully removed the tracking station in Kiribati and said China’s then-ambassador in Kiribati was a space expert.

The equipment was locked away and guarded by four fishermen, Chu said.

“It seems it can come back at any time,” he added, referring to the tracking station.

The Kiribati government did not respond to a request for comment.

China’s space program is overseen by the military. China’s Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

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 its allies.

Reporting by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne, Editing by Timothy Heritage