Hearts 'linked as one' as Taiwan welcomes tiny Nauru amid China tussle

TAIPEI (Reuters) - The president of the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru promised on Friday to always stand beside Taiwan as their hearts are “linked as one”, as he visited Taipei amid a growing tussle for influence in the region between Beijing and Washington.

While the Pacific states are small developing nations, they lie in highly strategic waters dominated by the United States and its allies since World War Two. China’s moves to expand its footprint there have angered Washington.

Democratic Taiwan has faced intense pressure from China, which claims the island as its territory with no right to state-to-state ties, over its remaining diplomatic allies. Taiwan lost two Pacific states in September and now only has 15 formal allies worldwide.

Speaking at a welcoming ceremony in Taipei, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen extended a “heartfelt welcome” to Nauru President Lionel Aingimea, who took office in August and stopped over in Taiwan in September on the way back from the United Nations.

“Nauru is a staunch Pacific ally of Taiwan,” Tsai said. “This time you are leading a state visit, demonstrating your firm support of our nations’ diplomatic ties.”

Aingimea told Tsai that the people of Taiwan are part of their family.

“Nauru is much smaller compared to Taiwan in population, size and infrastructure, but our hearts are linked as one,” he added. “Nauru will always stand side by side with Taiwan in the future that we are going forward together with.”

The United States has urged Taiwan’s remaining friends in the Pacific to stick with Taipei. Washington has no diplomatic ties with Taipei, but is the island’s strongest international backer and main arms supplier.

China meanwhile has continued its Pacific push.

Later on Friday, China is hosting one of its Pacific friends, with President Xi Jinping set to meet Micronesia’s President David Panuelo.

Though Pacific Island states offer little economically to either China and Taiwan, their support is valued in global forums such as the United Nations and as China seeks to isolate Taiwan.

China has offered to help developing countries including in the Pacific, and many see Chinese lending as the best bet to develop their economies.

But critics say Chinese loans can lead countries into a “debt trap”, and Taiwan has said China has dangled huge aid packages in front of countries to get them to switch over to Beijing.

China has angrily rejected these charges.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore