Tue, Jul 06, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Kiribati fears Beijing's new strategy

UNREST Demonstrations have been sponsored by China, hoping to oust the elected government to replace it with the Beijing-friendly opposition

AFP , AUCKLAND

The president of Kiribati yesterday expressed concern over the presence of Chinese officials in his South Pacific nation, saying he feared they could be trying to influence a change of government.

President Anote Tong's government switched diplomatic allegiance from Beijing to Taipei after coming to power in November last year, forcing China to close a satellite-monitoring base on the main atoll of Tarawa.

Three Chinese diplomats remain as caretakers of embassy facilities, however, which has made the government nervous.

Tong said he believed China was behind an unprecedented demonstration staged to protest against Kiribati's decision to sever diplomatic ties with Beijing.

"We are watching out at the political environment here because they did participate in the last process," Tong said. "They continue to hope there will be a reversal of the situation, a change of government I guess."

Tong said in a telephone interview he presumed the continued presence of the Chinese diplomats was based on Beijing's hope for a change of government.

"We will be reviewing the situation because we are interested to as to what their continued presence means and it would only suggest that they are hoping one day to be able to come back," he said.

Asked if the government would expel the diplomats, Tong said: "It might be a possibility, I think we have to keep an eye out on their real role, the role they are playing in staying back."

"We are a small country [compared] with a big country like that, and we are a little nervous. I think we ought to be given the opportunity of not being manipulated into any situations."

Tong said the embassy had imported "large amounts of cargo, container loads." He did not know what was in them or the quantity.

"So we ask why are three people caretaking the embassy building [requiring] that amount of goods?" he said.

The Chinese Embassy telephone number was unanswered yesterday

Kiribati, which was formerly known as the Gilbert Islands, is made up of 33 atolls and one high island with a combined land area of 811km2.

Last year its 100,000 people were drawn into a protracted political battle which saw then-president Teburoro Tito lose office after six years with Tong taking over.

During the election process then Chinese ambassador Shuxue Ma (馬書學) said he had donated A$5,132 (US$2,848) to a cooperative society aligned to Tito. The donation and the presence of the satellite base were election issues.

Although remote, Kiribati's position on the Equator makes it attractive for the aerospace industry.

The giant Sealaunch Boeing led consortium launch satellites from a converted oil rig near Kiribati, while Japan's National Space Development Agency planned to build a space station on an isolated atoll.

Tarawa is around 1,000km south of the US Army missile-testing base at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, which is used for testing ballistic missiles fired from California and developing missile-defense systems.

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