China’s Pacific push reverberates as Kiribati’s pro-Beijing president wins re-election

Pro-Beijing President Taneti Maamau was responsible for the switching Kiribati's allegiance from Taiwan to China.(Reuters: Mark Schiefelbein)

ABC NEWS – By foreign affair reporter Melissa Clarke

Posted Thursday 25 June 2020 at 10:13am, updated Thursday 25 June 2020 at 5:56pm

A tiny Pacific country delivered China an important victory this week.

Key points:

  • Kiribati’s Government wants to develop infrastructure at their atolls to boost tourism
  • Canberra and Washington are worried about China’s financial support in the Pacific
  • Kiribati and the Solomon Islands abandoned alliances with Taiwan last year

Kiribati, an archipelago of atolls scattered along the equator, re-elected President Taneti Maamau to serve a second term after a robust election campaign.

The man responsible for the switching Kiribati’s allegiance from Taiwan to China survived the challenge to both his leadership and his diplomatic manoeuvring.

The nascent relationship with Beijing now has space to grow, but the continuity doesn’t mean calmness.

There are concerns China’s growing presence in Kiribati could prove disruptive, both among the atolls and between superpowers.

Concerns over dept-trap diplomacy

The capital of Kiribati, Tarawa, from above.
Kiribati sprawls across the central Pacific Ocean and is geographically critical to the US.(Oxfam: Rodney Dekker)

The Australian Government has broad concerns about China’s burgeoning interest in the Pacific.

With an enormous need for development and limited economic means, many Pacific countries rely on the interests of great powers in the region — Australia, China and the United States are among them.

Canberra is worried that China’s financial support in the region could lead to debt-trap diplomacy, where unsustainable loans provide China a means of controlling Pacific assets.

The fear is a Pacific version of the Sri Lankan experience, where China gained a 99-year lease on a port after Colombo failed to meet its debt obligations to Beijing.

That fear of debt-trap diplomacy is shared by Washington, which also has more hawkish concerns.

Kiribati sprawls across the central Pacific Ocean and in the east is the largest atoll, Kiritimati.

It’s located some 3,000 kilometres south of Hawaii with a deep-water pier and a large lagoon. Its geography is critical.

Kiribati’s Government would like to develop infrastructure at the atoll to boost tourism, while Washington fears that would enable China’s presence — a little too close for American comfort.

But aside from exercising the minds of the defence establishments of the major powers in the region, the switch in allegiance is causing reverberations locally, too.

Extravagant spending promises via Chinese funds

A new-looking bitumen road connecting one island to another, with a build-up of sand and rocks on either side.
The election campaign’s spending promises raised public expectations of what will now be delivered.(ABC News: Kurt Johnson)

Mr Maamau’s decision to dump Taiwan for China in September last year caught many in Kiribati by surprise, including some of his fellow government MPs.

It led to a great deal of acrimony and, ultimately, to one of his former colleagues challenging him for the presidency.

Benuera Berina left the governing party, aligning himself with those seeking to overturn the diplomatic switch.

Despite this, the presidential election wasn’t a straight-forward pro-China versus pro-Taiwan contest.

Mr Berina questioned Mr Maamau’s honesty around the issue and also questioned his ability to manage the new flow of Chinese funds.

Mr Maamau’s clear victory margin — around 8,000 votes from a population of around 110,000 — suggests that wasn’t a persuasive argument.

But the election campaign saw extravagant spending promises made on the basis of Chinese funds, raising public expectations of what will now be delivered.

Rushing to meet those expectations could lead to undue reliance on Beijing’s purse.

Severing ties with Taiwan for China

A mother carries a baby in front of a dilapidated shack
Canberra is worried China’s financial support in the region could lead to debt-trap diplomacy.(ABC News: Kurt Johnson)

Kiribati was not alone in abandoning ties with Taiwan last year — the Solomon Islands moved first, making the same switch just weeks before.

There, too, the change continues to reverberate.

The decision was made by the central Government in Honiara, but Premier of the Malaita Province has remained firmly pro-Taiwan.

Earlier this month, Taiwan sent COVID-19 supplies to Malaita, which prompted a reprimand from Honiara.

Meanwhile, another province has flirted with leasing islands to Chinese companies, a move also restrained by Honiara.

The divergent views, combined with historical anti-China sentiment in some areas, means the recent embrace of Beijing risks exacerbating existing tensions.

As the Solomon Islands and Kiribati attempt to settle the waters, the dual defections may serve as a cautionary warning for Taiwan’s remaining Pacific supporters.

Nauru, Palau, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu are among the 15 countries left that still recognise Taiwan’s independence from Beijing.

As China continues to pursue expansionist foreign policies and aggressive diplomacy, alluring offers to align with Beijing may come their way too.

They may be observing the experiences of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands just as closely as Canberra and Washington.


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