Nauru demands China apologize for 'disrespect' at Pacific forum

WELLINGTON/SYDNEY (Reuters) - The tiny Micronesian state of Nauru is demanding a formal apology after a dispute with China’s representative at this week’s Pacific Islands Forum brought to the surface tensions with Beijing over its support for Taiwan.

FILE PHOTO: Nauru President Baron Divavesi Waqa addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

But China said it was Nauru, one of the world’s smallest countries, that should be saying sorry.

Nauru, an island country of roughly 12,000 inhabitants, hosted leaders of 18 Pacific nations, plus delegations from non-member countries including the United States and China, for the forum.

The spat occurred when Nauru’s President Baron Waqa refused to give way when the head of the Chinese delegation, diplomat Du Qiwen, demanded to be allowed to address the forum before the Prime Minister of Tuvalu on Tuesday.

Waqa described China’s envoy as “very insolent” and a “bully” for speaking out of turn.

Nauru and Tuvalu are two of six Pacific countries to have diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which is a major source of tension with China, which regards Taiwan as a wayward province, to be taken back by force if necessary.

During a media conference that followed the leaders’ meeting at the forum late on Wednesday, Nauru’s president was asked whether he would seek a formal apology from China over its envoy’s behavior.

“We will go further than that, I tell you we won’t just seek an apology, we will actually get the forum to do well as our own and we will even take it up to the UN,” Waqa said.

“Never mind they are big, they are our partners, they should not disrespect us.”

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Nauru was to blame for the drama.

“I think the Nauru President you’re taking about is probably very happy about becoming a focus of public opinion,” she told a daily news briefing.

“What Nauru said is diametrically the opposite of the facts. It has totally confused right and wrong and they have made bogus accusations,” Hua added.

“It’s actually the Nauru side who should reflect and apologize.”

Hua implied Taiwan was behind the fracas.

“I wish to admonish Nauru and the director behind this performance that in the face of the broad historical trend of the ‘one China’ principle, they should immediately stop creating a scene for no reason and again invite humiliation.”

Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times said in an editorial that the dispute was connected to Nauru’s recognition of Taiwan.

“Taiwan should not believe there is still an opportunity for its “diplomacy” just because of Nauru’s actions. It’s absurd that Taiwan’s future can be decided by a remote Pacific island country,” the paper said on Thursday.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrew Lee told Reuters in a written statement that it was “basic etiquette” to respect the arrangement made by a host country in international conferences.

The ministry also thanked the support from Nauru, he said.

Waqa said that he had not allowed China to speak as protocol dictated that he allow prime ministers and ministers to speak before diplomats.

“I have to be strong here because no one is to come and dictate things for us,” Waqa said. “It’s about the way they treated us, they’re not our friends. They just use us for their own purpose, for their own will.”

The forum is set to end on Thursday.

China has become one of the dominant economic players in the Pacific, spending billions of dollars in trade, investment, aid and tourism in a region that staunch U.S. ally Australia has long regarded as its “back yard”.

Chinese lending to the region has surged from nearly zero to $1.3 billion over the last decade, stoking concern that tiny nations could end up overburdened and in debt.

Tuvalu is set to host the Pacific Island Forum in 2019 and Waqa said some states had suggested changing the rules around which forum events countries with ‘dialogue partner’ status, including China, would be allowed to speak.

Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in WELLINGTON and Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Yimou Lee in TAIPEI; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore