A turning point in China's expansion across the Pacific to America will unfold on Monday when Kiribati, a country of just 110,000 that controls a vast ocean expanse, decides whether to re-elect a pro-Chinese president or choose a challenger to commit To recognize Taiwan.
For China, the possibility of gaining a foothold on Kiribati's Christmas Island, the world's largest atoll with a land area of 150 square miles, is at stake. It is only 1,300 miles south of Honolulu, home of the U.S. Pacific Command. The construction of port facilities on Christmas Island, supposedly for tourism but suitable for Chinese warships, is a concern of the U.S. military.
For Taiwan, it would be a significant victory for President Tsai Ing-wen to reverse Kiribati's defect in 2019, bringing the number of countries around the world that recognize his existence as a sovereign nation to 15. "China has more to win than Taiwan at this point," said Natasha Kassam of the Lowy Institute in Sydney. Even if the pro-China candidate wins, "the domestic cost of changing loyalty in Kiribati has already served its purpose as a warning story for other Taiwanese partners," Kassam told foreign policy.
When Kiribati President Taneti Maamau announced his decision to move his country's support to Beijing last September, even members of his own party were surprised. In fact, Kiribati's ambassador to the United Nations and the United States, Teburoro Tito (himself a former President of Kiribati), was in the Secretary General of the United States' office, arguing that Taiwan should attend the meetings organized by the United States when he left the Decision learned. Maamau was elected in 2016 to maintain the relationship with Taiwan that his predecessor Anote Tong initiated in 2003.
The sudden move to Beijing was not well received in Kiribati. Demonstrations were held with demonstrators waving Taiwanese flags and singing, "We love Taiwan, we hate China, we want peace." Opposition leader Titabu Tabane accused the government of not consulting the people.
The move also prompted enough Maamau MPs, including their leader Banuera Berina, to join the opposition and deprive Maamau of his previously comfortable majority when a new parliament was elected in April.
Kiribati sources said there were several reasons for Maamau's move from Taiwan to Beijing.
First, Maamau's government has advocated several scientific studies that predict that his country's sand islands, along with a sea level that is expected to rise 1 meter by the end of the century, will not increase in height – not drown in decades, as by predicted his predecessor Tong. That is why Maamau has launched an ambitious program to develop the country and lift its people out of poverty by using tourism – mainly on Christmas Island – and tuna fishing.
The government decided that it needed two 92-seat long-haul Embraer aircraft to connect Tarawa, the capital island, at Christmas 2,000 miles east – and the world beyond. The company reportedly paid $ 60 million for one plane and asked Taiwan for a grant to buy the second plane – a huge order since Taiwan's annual aid to Kiribati was around $ 10 million. Taiwan declined what was Tsai's opposition to checkbook diplomacy. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said in his announcement of the diplomatic pause: "Maamau has asked Taiwan for massive financial support for the purchase of commercial aircraft." Instead, Wu said, Taiwan offered to provide a preferred commercial loan, which Kiribati declined.
However, Berina – the former party leader, defector and now Maamau's challenger in Monday's election – said in an interview that he was told Taiwan had told Kiribati officials a completely different story. They allegedly offered Kiribati a grant disguised as a loan: if the repayment was due, Taiwan would increase bilateral aid proportionally, so that Taiwan would repay the loan. The allegation could not be verified.
A second reason for the move to Beijing, according to government sources, is that the ruling party feared that Taiwan would give the opponents of Maamau and his party money in this year's parliamentary and presidential elections. Members of the Maamau party, when they were in opposition from 2003 to 2016, often complained that Taiwan gave cash to parliamentarians of the then President Tong party at the time of the election, and leaders of the Maamau party feared that the old one Alliance would reappear. There are no restrictions on who can give money to elected officials under the Kiribati Act, and Kiribati is in the bottom third of the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
A third reason the pro-Taiwanese opposition puts forward is in line with complaints about Chinese bribery offers in small countries that were suddenly in Beijing's embrace, such as the Solomon Islands, which had changed loyalty four days before Kiribati. There, Daniel Sudaini, Prime Minister of Solomon's largest island, Malaita, told an Australian 60-minute team that he was offered (and refused) a million dollars to support the move. He added on camera that he thought there were many corrupt officials in his government.
The Australian crew had just traveled to Tarawa, Kiribati, on a Pacific trip to investigate China's expansion, when they were placed under house arrest upon arrival at their hotel because they were not officially approved to film. Before being deported to the next plane, the journalists were visited in their hotel by Kiribati's first president, Ieremia Tabai, along with an opposition parliamentarian and opposition leader Tabane. The latter called their detention "a sad day for democracy". A reporter quoted her as saying that China "paid out AUD $ 250,000 in 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, when Maamau announced the move and several parliamentarians protested that Taiwan was popular and they feared that the move would cause them to lose their seats, Maamau told them not to worry because we're going to get campaign money from China. Berina added, "I was shocked."
Although government officials have spoken of hundreds of millions of dollars in Chinese aid – which they swear will only be grants, not loans that Kiribati could incur in debts that they could not repay to China – they have not supplied many details. When Maamau made his first state visit to Beijing, he signed a belt-and-road memorandum of understanding, which included credit, according to Berina, who was still the leader of the ruling party at the time. His claim could not be verified immediately.
A vivid example of China's interest in Christmas Island was an official photo of the signing ceremony at which Maamau faces Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Minister for the Line Islands, which includes Christmas, is on his right. Mikarite Temari, the minister, is a relatively peripheral personality in Kiribati politics, but the key to the development of Christmas and its port infrastructure.
Kiribati sources said the pre-Monday election campaign had largely focused on China: would it use pledges and bribes to flood the country with its workers to build white elephant projects, and possibly COVID-19 at one of the last nations without China? as the opposition claims? Will it push through its expansion agenda and take over Christmas as China tried to lease the entire island of Tulagi, the former capital under British and Japanese rule, with a perfect deep-water port within a few days of being recognized by the Solomon Islands? Or will the Maamau government hold on and only receive grants that benefit the population substantially, such as measures to counteract rising sea levels and tourist infrastructure to attract Hawaiian visitors, for whom untouched Christmas is the closest accessible tropical atoll?
Tito, the UN and US envoy, said that the United States, despite not providing aid to Kiribati, remains popular for cultural and historical reasons, not least because it protected the then-British protectorate of the Japanese occupation in the Battle of Had freed Tarawa in 1943. When Kiribati gained independence from Britain just over 40 years ago, it signed a friendship treaty with the United States that other countries cannot build military facilities in Kiribati without Washington's consent. Though difficult to imagine, Tito said that the six-month grace period was "possible."
The global strategic importance of Kiribati's election on Monday could therefore not be higher. Whether China continues its expansion across the Pacific to oust the United States and its allies can very well be decided by this tiny island nation.