China's Xi Jinping meets Kiribati leader after switch from Taiwan

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Kiribati's President Taneti Maamau during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Jan 6, 2020. PHOTO: AP

BEIJING (AP, REUTERS) - Chinese President Xi Jinping lauded Kiribati on Monday (Jan 6) for "standing on the right side of history" during his first meeting with the Pacific island nation's leader since it severed ties with Taiwan.

Kiribati switched allegiances to Communist Party-ruled China in September, leaving Taiwan with just 15 allies as Beijing has steadily siphoned them off through billions of dollars in aid since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016.

Ms Tsai is favoured to win a second term in this Saturday's election, an outcome that would likely intensify China's economic, diplomatic and military pressure over her refusal to accept its insistence that Taiwan is a part of China.

Since her election, China has increasingly sought to isolate Taiwan diplomatically while ramping up its threat to use force to annex the self-governing island republic.

Speaking to Mr Xi, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau reaffirmed his administration's commitment to the "One China" principle and expressed his "deepest respect" for the Chinese government's sovereignty.

According to China's official Xinhua News Agency, Mr Xi praised Mr Maamau's strategic vision and political boldness, as demonstrated by his "standing on the right side of history."

Meanwhile, a senior Chinese diplomat said Beijing was "open" to all sorts of projects in Kiribati, an ex-British colony made up mainly of atolls in the central Pacific, in waters dominated by the United States and its allies since World War II.

Speaking to reporters after Mr Xi met Mr Maamau, the diplomat, Lu Kang, did not respond directly to a question about whether Beijing planned to reopen a mothballed Chinese space tracking station.

"A lot of ideas, a lot of initiatives for joint ventures are still on the way," said Mr Lu, who heads the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs.

"So long as any ideas that could benefit both sides, especially both peoples on both sides, definitely China is open to these kind of ideas," he said, without elaborating.

China's space programme is overseen by the military, which has so far declined to comment on the Kiribati facility.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and wants the island to reunite with the mainland, from which it split during a civil war in 1949.

Beijing resents Ms Tsai for rejecting its pre-condition for dialogue that both belong to a single China. It has flown military aircraft near the island and pared back Taiwan-bound tourism to add pressure on her government.

Taiwan has responded by seeking to purchase arms from the US, including advanced fighter jets. Despite the absence of formal diplomatic ties, US law requires Washington to ensure Taiwan has the means to defend itself.

Last month, less than two weeks before this weekend's presidential and legislative elections, Taiwan's legislature passed a law aimed at blocking political interference from China.

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