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International relations

Taiwan loses second ally in a week as Kiribati switches to China

Pressure on nations with Taipei ties rises ahead of China's 70th anniversary

The flags of Kiribati and Taiwan. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the President, Republic of China)

TAIPEI -- Taiwan lost its second diplomatic ally in a week on Friday after Kiribati switched its allegiance to China, in a sign of increasing pressure from Beijing on the few countries that still have ties with Taipei.

"We are informed by Kiribati this morning," Taiwan's Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu said at a news conference. "Everything happened very quickly in the past few days," he said, adding that Taiwan received the information soon after the Solomon Islands ended its formal relationship with Taipei on Monday.

Kiribati is the seventh country to sever ties with Taiwan since China-skeptic President Tsai Ing-wen took office in May 2016. Taipei now has formal relations with just 15 countries, leaving it even more diplomatically isolated.

"China kept pressuring Taiwan's international space, but that will not erase the fact that Republic of China, Taiwan exists," Wu said. "We will not accept the arrangement of one country, two systems... We will not bow to China," Wu said.

The setbacks come as Tsai seeks to win a second term in a presidential election in January. Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China on Oct. 1, the timing could not be better for Beijing, which is embroiled in a trade war with the U.S. and faces unrest in Hong Kong.

Kiribati's move marks a success for Beijing in expanding its influence in the region, and deals a blow to Washington's regional diplomacy in the Pacific.

Kurt Tong, who was U.S. consulate general to Hong Kong until July, told the Nikkei Asian Review that the islands' moves "create more anxiety in Taiwan."

However, he added that the real impact could be short-lived, because "when you buy friends, it could work in the short term, but I don't think it creates a long term friendship." Tong, who is now a partner of Asia Group, a Washington-based consultancy headed by former U.S. diplomat Kurt Campbell, said: "I don't think it's good foreign policy over the long run."

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen speaks at news conference in Taipei on Monday after the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.   © AP

"From now on until the presidential election next year, it is expected that China will attempt to use all kind of means to intervene our elections," Tsai told reporters in a separate event on Friday. "It is ongoing that China is using our friendly allies to suppress us in international space."

Wu said that after the Solomon Islands cut ties with Taiwan on Monday, his ministry reached out to other Pacific allies. "Nauru, Tuvalu, Palau and Marshall Islands seem no problem as of now."

The minister said that as some of Taiwan's diplomatic allies have strategic positions in Pacific Ocean, it is crucial to be vigilant about China's increasing presence in the region.

"We urge democratic countries to work with us to prevent the aggressive expansion of authoritarianism," Wu said.

But Yen Chen-shen, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University, said that both Solomon and Kiribati switching to China in one week suggested that the U.S. and Australia's firewall is losing its impact against China.

"We should seriously worry about the domino effect on the remaining four allies in South Pacific, and Taiwan has little say in this," Yen said, adding that as long as cross-strait relationships continue to be strained, Taiwan can expect to lose more allies and face bigger pressure from Beijing.

Nikkei Asian Review chief business news correspondent Kenji Kawase in Tokyo contributed to this article.

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