China Could Be in Reach of Hawaii After Kiribati Elects Pro-Beijing President
The strategic significance of the vote could not have been higher.
A watershed moment in China’s expansion across the Pacific toward the Americas unfolded on June 22 when Kiribati, a country with only 110,000 inhabitants that controls a vast expanse of ocean, reelected a pro-China president instead of choosing a challenger pledged to recognize Taiwan.
Kiribati state media reported that incumbent President Taneti Maamau handily beat opposition leader Banuera Berina, an erstwhile Maamau ally who became his rival over the question of relations with Beijing. China featured heavily in the election campaign, including promises of aid and allegations of bribery.
Maamau’s reelection gives China the tantalizing possibility of gaining a foothold in Kiribati’s Christmas Island, the world’s biggest atoll with a land area of 150 square miles. It’s located just 1,300 miles south of Honolulu, home to the U.S. Pacific Command. Building port facilities on Christmas Island, ostensibly for tourism but capable of use by Chinese warships, is a concern for the U.S. military.
For Taiwan, reversing Kiribati’s 2019 defection—which brought the number of countries worldwide that recognize its existence as a sovereign nation down to 15—would have been a significant victory for President Tsai Ing-wen.
When Maamau announced last September his decision to switch his country’s support to Beijing, even members of his own party were surprised. In fact, Kiribati’s ambassador to the United Nations and United States, Teburoro Tito (himself a former Kiribati president), was in the U.N. secretary-general’s office arguing the case for Taiwan to attend meetings organized by the U.N. when he learned of the decision. Maamau was elected in 2016 on a pledge to retain ties with Taiwan, which his predecessor, Anote Tong, had initiated in 2003.
The sudden switch to Beijing in 2019 initially did not go down well in Kiribati. Demonstrations were held with protesters waving Taiwanese flags and chanting, “We love Taiwan, we hate China, we want peace.” The leader of the opposition, Titabu Tabane, accused the government of failing to consult the people.
The move also caused enough members of parliament from Maamau’s party, including its chairman, Berina, to bolt to the opposition and deprive Maamau of his previously comfortable majority when a new parliament was elected in April.
According to Kiribati sources, there were several reasons for Maamau’s switch from Taiwan to Beijing.
First, Maamau’s administration has espoused multiple scientific studies that predict his country’s sand islands will gain elevation in tandem with a sea level expected to rise by 1 meter by century’s end—not drown within decades as prophesied by his predecessor, Tong. So Maamau has embarked on an ambitious program to develop the country and lift his people out of poverty, leveraging tourism—mostly on Christmas Island—and the tuna fishery.
For that, the government decided it needed two long-range, 92-seat Embraer aircraft to link Tarawa, the capital island, to Christmas 2,000 miles to the east—and to the world beyond. It reportedly paid $60 million for one aircraft and asked Taiwan for a grant to buy the second one—a tall order given that Taiwan’s annual aid to Kiribati was around $10 million. Taiwan demurred, in keeping with Tsai’s opposition to checkbook diplomacy. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, in his announcement of the diplomatic break, put it this way: “Maamau has requested massive financial assistance from Taiwan to purchase commercial airplanes.” Instead, Wu said, Taiwan offered to provide a preferential commercial loan, but it was rejected by Kiribati.
However, Berina—the former party leader, defector, and now Maamau’s challenger in Monday’s election—said in an interview that he was told that Taiwan had given Kiribati officials a very different story. They allegedly offered Kiribati a grant covertly disguised as a loan: When its repayment came due, Taiwan would increase bilateral aid in proportion, so the loan reimbursement would be covered by Taiwan. The claim could not be verified.
A second reason for the switch to Beijing, according to government sources, is that the ruling party leadership feared that Taiwan would give money to the opponents of Maamau and his party in this year’s parliamentary and presidential elections. Members of Maamau’s party, when they were in the opposition from 2003 to 2016, often complained that Taiwan gave cash at election time to parliamentarians of then-President Tong’s party, and the leaders of Maamau’s party feared the old alliance would reemerge. Under Kiribati law, there are no restrictions on who may give money to elected officials, and Kiribati is in the bottom third of the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
A third reason, proffered by the pro-Taiwan opposition, is in line with complaints about Chinese bribery offers in small countries that suddenly found themselves in Beijing’s embrace, such as the Solomon Islands, which flipped allegiances four days before Kiribati. There, Daniel Sudaini, premier of the Solomon’s largest island, Malaita, told an Australian 60 Minutes team that he was offered (and had turned down) $1 million to back the switch. He added on camera that he thought there were a lot of corrupt officials in his government.
The Australian crew, on a tour of the Pacific to investigate China’s expansion, had just traveled to Tarawa in Kiribati when it was placed under house arrest at its hotel upon arrival because, officials said, it lacked proper authorizations to film. Before they were expelled on the next plane out, the journalists were visited in their hotel by Ieremia Tabai, Kiribati’s first president who is now an opposition parliamentarian, and Tabane, the opposition leader. The latter called their detention “a sad day for democracy.” A reporter quoted them as saying that China had “doled out A$250,000 cash within weeks of Kiribati’s recognition of Beijing.” (Kiribati’s currency is the Australian dollar.)
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Berina, the opposition presidential candidate, said that when Maamau announced the switch and several parliamentarians protested that Taiwan was popular and they feared losing their seats as a result of the switch, Maamau told them not to worry “because we will be getting campaign money from China.” Berina added: “I was shocked.”
Though government officials have spoken of Chinese aid in the hundreds of millions of dollars—which they swear will consist only of grants, not loans that would risk trapping Kiribati in debt it could not repay to China—they have not provided much detail. But when Maamau made his first state visit to Beijing, he signed a Belt and Road Memorandum of Understanding that involved only loans, according to Berina, who was still the ruling party’s chairman at the time. His claim could not be verified immediately.
A vivid illustration of China’s interest in Christmas Island came in an official photograph of the signing ceremony showing Maamau facing Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the minister for the Line Islands, of which Christmas is a part, on his right. Mikarite Temari, the minister, is a relatively peripheral figure in Kiribati politics but key to developing Christmas and its port infrastructure.
Kiribati sources said the campaign ahead of the June 22 election focused largely on China: Would it use aid promises and bribes to flood the country with its workers to build white elephant projects, possibly bringing COVID-19 to one of the last nations devoid of it, as the opposition claims? Will it press its expansionist agenda, taking over Christmas just as China tried, within days of gaining recognition from the Solomons, to lease all of Tulagi Island, the former capital under British and Japanese rule with a perfect deep-water harbor? Or will the Maamau administration hold firm and take only grants that materially benefit the population, such as for adaptation measures against sea-level rise and tourism infrastructure to lure visitors from Hawaii, for whom pristine Christmas is the closest accessible tropical atoll?
Tito, the U.N. and U.S. envoy, said that even though it gives no aid to Kiribati, the United States remains popular for cultural and historical reasons, not least for having liberated what was then still a British protectorate from Japanese occupation in the 1943 Battle of Tarawa. When Kiribati gained independence from Britain a little more than 40 years ago, it signed a friendship treaty with the United States under which no military installations can be built in Kiribati by other countries without Washington’s consent. Though he found it hard to imagine, Tito said that the treaty’s abrogation, with due six-month notice, was “possible.”
The global strategic significance of Maamau’s victory could therefore not be higher. China’s continued expansion across the Pacific to displace the United States and its allies may very well have been decided by this tiny island nation.
Christopher Pala, a former New York Times contributor covering the Pacific and Central Asia, now lives in Washington, DC.