Fierce presidential election erupts in Pacific amid China-Taiwan tussle

By Jonathan Barrett and Ben Blanchard
SYDNEY / TAIPEI (Reuters) - The presidential runoff in the Pacific island state of Kiribati between a pro-Beijing leader and an opposition candidate who sympathizes with Taiwan is the most aggressive campaign in the country's history, according to former President Anote Tong.
The vote, scheduled for June 22, could open the door to Taiwan to regain the strategic ally it lost to China last year. The opposition is fighting on a platform that is critical of the diplomatic change.
Kiribati, the site of a mothballed Chinese space station in the Central Pacific, has a balanced parliament whose loyalty is divided equally between President Taneti Maamau and the allied rival Banuera Berina, who resigned from the government last year and raised concerns about the change.
"It was primarily about the Taiwan-China issue," said Tong. "In my experience, it is the most aggressive campaign I have ever seen," describes a bidding war of unexpensive politics and combative claims about whether Kiribati will benefit from relations with Beijing or not.
Tong, who said he had been impartial since stepping down from politics in 2016, oversaw a relocation of Kiribati's relations from China to Taiwan during his first term in 2003.
"There are some strong feelings against China, particularly due to the very active participation of the Chinese diplomatic mission during the campaign," said Tong.
China's embassy in Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) said China does not interfere in other countries' internal affairs.
China's foreign ministry in Beijing said that there have been rich results since the nations resumed diplomatic relations last year.
"China is ready to work with the Kiribati government based on the one-China principle to promote the continued development of Sino-Kiribati relations and promote human well-being in both countries," said the ministry.
According to a statement by the Kiribati government, Kiribati received more than $ 4.2 million from China for "living projects" in the weeks leading up to the vote.
The offices of candidates Maamau and Berina did not respond to requests for comments.
Diplomatic sources say that both Washington and Canberra are watching the election closely, given concerns over China's growing role in the Pacific.
"We have taken the Pacific for granted for too long and have not given enough attention to give China the opportunity," said a senior Western official on anonymity to Reuters, referring to Kiribati and Solomon's decisions last year To recognize Beijing.
The U.S. embassy in Fiji, which oversees relations with Kiribati, did not immediately respond to requests for comments.

BEIJING BUILDS CLOUT
Many Pacific island states that have long been associated with the United States and its allies have developed closer ties with China in recent years as Beijing has sought to strengthen its diplomatic and financial influence in the region.
China claims democratic Taiwan as its territory with no right to state relations.
Taiwan, which has a robust but unofficial relationship with the United States, has only 15 formal allies worldwide.
A Kiribati MP who refused to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media said Kiribati would want to re-establish a working relationship with Taiwan if Berina wins.
"I think Taiwan would be invited back. It remains to be seen whether we will take the next step in ending relations with China," said the member.
Taiwan's government is also monitoring the elections, but officials have warned that they are too optimistic that a new president will quickly re-establish relations with the island.
Western intelligence agencies have privately expressed concern that China has used Kiribati's space station and plans to use it again to monitor US missile and other weapons tests in the Pacific, security forces told Reuters.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Reuters that the station was only for "peaceful purposes" without going into more detail.

(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett and Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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