TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan has accused China of insensitivity by announcing that Papua New Guinea had downgraded its relations with the self-ruled island while Taiwan was still dealing with the aftermath of a deadly earthquake.
China has become increasingly hostile towards Taiwan, claimed by Beijing as its own, since the election in 2016 of Tsai Ing-wen from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, and has increased diplomatic pressure.
In a statement late on Monday, Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said China had forced Papua New Guinea to change the name of Taipei's representative office in the country and remove diplomatic license plates from diplomats' cars.
Papua New Guinea had "bent to pressure from mainland China", the ministry said.
Taiwan and Papua New Guinea do not have formal diplomatic relations, but Taiwan opened a trade office there in 1990.
China's Foreign Ministry, in a statement late on Sunday, noted the name of Taiwan's PNG office had been changed to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Papua New Guinea, and said it appreciated the move.
That China had chosen to announce Papua New Guinea's decision was hurtful while Taiwan dealing was with the aftermath of an earthquake on the eastern part of the island in which at least 17 people died, Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said.
"This has hurt the feelings of our people, and even caused a backlash. We feel this is deeply regrettable."
A Papua New Guinea government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely to visit PNG later this year as it is this year's host for the APEC summit of Asia-Pacific leaders.
"PNG is heavily reliant on Chinese foreign aid. The government has been forced to dramatically cut government expenditure as the budget deficit soars. While that has happened, many of the new infrastructure projects seem to have Chinese backing," a former Papua New Guinea treasury advisor told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Chinese aid to Papua New Guinea has grown significantly, the Lowy Institute, an Australia think-tank said earlier this year. Lowy estimates PNG is the largest recipient of Chinese aid in the Pacific, receiving some $632 million since 2006.
The rise of China in the Pacific has stoked tensions with Australia, which has historically enjoyed a dominant influence in the region. In January, Australia accused China of trying to carry favor in the Pacific by providing capital for little-used infrastructure projects, a claim that quickly drew criticism from Beijing.
Taiwan complained last year that China was putting pressure on other countries to force them to change the names of Taiwan's representative offices.
(Reporting by Jess Macy Yu; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Colin Packham in Sydney)