China to open mission with tiny Sao Tome, despite its Taiwan links

SAO TOME (Reuters) - China plans to open a trade mission to promote projects in Sao Tome and Principe, 16 years after it broke off relations over the tiny Central African nation’s diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, Sao Tome officials said.

The former Portuguese colony is among a few African nations, along with Burkina Faso, Swaziland and The Gambia, that recognize self-ruled Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province to be recovered by force if necessary.

The agreement between the Sao Tome government and Chinese representatives was signed on Tuesday on the premises of the former Chinese Embassy in the country’s capital.

“The islands of Sao Tome must be open to the world, making friends and partnerships,” said Liberato Moniz, who represented President Manuel Pinto da Costa at the signing.

Sao Tome Public Works Minister Osvaldo Abreu said Chinese businessmen and industrialists would soon arrive in the country under the agreement and that a planned $400 million deepwater port could be a target for potential collaboration.

Sao Tome officials did not say whether the new cooperation deal with Beijing would affect diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Taiwan Foreign Minister David Lin told legislators in Taipei it seemed unlikely Sao Tome would switch recognition to China, but added Taiwan will “review its existing assistance programs for Sao Tome to see if any adjustment is necessary”.

Sao Tome and Principe’s tiny island economy is heavily dependent on cocoa exports but its position in the middle of the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea has raised interest in its potential as a possible future oil and gas producer.

China says Taiwan has no right to diplomatic recognition as it is part of China. The two have been governed separately since the Communist Party won the Chinese civil war in 1949, and the Nationalists fled across a 180-km (110-mile)-wide strait to Taiwan.

But China and Taiwan have signed a series of landmark trade and economic deals since China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou was elected Taiwan’s president in 2008.

To maintain that more friendly momentum, the two sides have since observed an unofficial truce in the competition to court diplomatic recognition.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the new trade office would help in economic and cultural exchanges, which could be done while “maintaining peaceful developments across the Taiwan Strait”.

Costa Rica was the most recent nation to recognize Beijing in 2007, leaving Taiwan with 23 allies ranging in size from Paraguay to the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru.

Reporting by Ricardo Neto; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Clare Jim in TAIPEI; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Nick Macfie