Marshall Islands shows support for Taiwan after neighbors favor China

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Marshall Islands confirmed it was maintaining diplomatic ties with Taiwan on Wednesday, a welcome show of support for President Tsai Ing-wen who has seen two other Pacific nations drop ties in favor of China in a matter of weeks.

The neighboring Solomon Islands and Kiribati decided to recognize China earlier this month, dropping self-ruled and democratic Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own province with no rights to state-to-state relations.

The small developing nations 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.

In a statement, the Marshall Islands said it had adopted a resolution to show its “profound appreciation to the people and government of Taiwan”.

“We’ve all seen China’s attempts to expand its territory and footprint, and this should be of great concern to democratic countries,” President Hilda Heine said.

The Foreign Ministry in Taiwan, which has denounced China for luring its allies with promises of easy loans, expressed “deep thanks” for the message of support and pledged to further deepen cooperation with the Marshall Islands.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said cooperation was warmly welcomed and had brought the Pacific island nations real benefits.

“Anyone who understands the situation and is not prejudiced can see this very clearly,” he told a daily news briefing, when asked about Heine’s criticism of China’s role.

Self-ruled Taiwan now has formal relations with only 15 countries, many of them small, less developed nations in Central America and the Pacific, including Belize and Nauru.

Seven countries have dropped Taiwan as a diplomatic ally since 2016, when Tsai took office. So the show of support from the Marshall Islands will provide some relief for her ahead of presidential elections in January.

Last week parliament in the tiny South Pacific country of Tuvalu elected a new prime minister, making a change that analysts say could give China a chance to further undermine Taiwan in a region that has been a pillar of support.

Having retained his seat at a general election earlier this month, Tuvalu’s pro-Taiwan leader Enele Sopoaga had been expected to keep the premiership, but the 16-person parliament instead selected Kausea Natano.

Taiwan’s embassy in Tuvalu said that its ambassador there, Marc Su, met Natano and Foreign Minister Simon Kofe on Tuesday, having met with all members of the new Cabinet late last week.

It did not provide details of their conversations.

Reporting by Swati Pandey; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Fabian Hamacher in Taipei; editing by Neil Fullick, Anna Willard and Himani Sarkar