The return of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati to Beijing’s diplomatic fold could give a lift to the Asian giant’s space ambitions. The islands and atolls that make up Kiribati sprawl across the equator and are just south of the Marshall Islands, an important missile testing ground for the United States. Because of its location, Kiribati was home to Beijing’s first overseas space tracking station, which played an important role in the Shenzhou manned space missions and the BeiDou navigation systems. The base, the China Space Tracking, Telemetry and Control Station, was established on South Tarawa Island in 1997, before the two countries broke off ties in 2003 and Kiribati switched recognition to Taipei. The station tracked many launches, including the Shenzhou V mission that carried the first Chinese astronaut into space on October 15, 2003. Taipei down to 15 allies as Kiribati announces switch of diplomatic ties to Beijing After the split, Beijing packed up the space station but now Kiribati could once again be home to such tracking facilities with its announcement that it was severing relations with Taipei. Kiribati announced its switch on Friday, just four days after the Solomon Islands made the same move. The two defections left Taipei with 15 allies. Beijing said it “highly appreciated” this decision, and welcomed Kiribati to the “family of cooperation between China and other Pacific Island nations, opening a new page of relations between the two sides”. “There was setback in our relationship but both peoples have always have good will towards each other,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said. Under the one-China principle, Beijing does not have diplomatic relations with any country that recognises Taiwan as an independent nation. Beijing views Taipei as a renegade province to be united with mainland China, by force if necessary. China has plans to build a permanent space station and land astronauts on the moon by 2030, a mission that would require a series of tracking outposts, including on the equator in the Pacific. Wang Shaohua, former Chinese ambassador to Kiribati, said that without the Kiribati station, Beijing had to send ships to the Pacific for each satellite launch to track and control the rockets and satellites, an approach that was three times more expensive than using a station on land. “Then Kiribati president also told me that the Americans were also concerned about the station,” Wang recalled in an article published online in 2009. He said Beijing repeatedly sought to reassure Kiribati that the station had no military use and was “totally for peaceful purposes”. But the concerns did not disappear, especially after an Agence France-Presse reporter entered the base in 1999 and claimed to have found its satellite dishes pointing northward towards Kwajalein Atoll, a major US missile range in the Marshall Islands. The American Institute in Taipei, the de facto US embassy in Taiwan, said the US was deeply disappointed in Kiribati’s decision to switch sides.