The elections in Kiribati, a tiny central Pacific Ocean island could not have been more important for China and Taiwan. In a win for China, Taneti Maamau was re-elected to a second term as Kiribati’s president just two months after losing his parliamentary majority over his astonishing move to recognise China and cut official ties with Taiwan.
The flip in September last year, four days after an identical switch by Solomon Islands, left Taiwan with only 15 countries that recognise it as a separate country. The presidential vote was 26,053 ballots for Maamau against 17,866 for his challenger, lawyer Banuera Berina, according to officials in the capital Tarawa, as cited by Teburoro Tito, the Kiribati ambassador to the US and UN in New York.
China vs Australia, US and Taiwan
Internationally, the elections in Kiribati are closely being monitored by the US and Australia since a victory for China means an increased stronghold in the Pacific Ocean, a region historically dominated by Washington and Canberra.
The people of Kiribati will today choose their President. Whether the country has relations with China or Taiwan is the main dividing issue between the two candidates, Taneti Maamau and Banuera Berina.
Maamau is the pro-China candidate and was responsible for switching diplomatic allegiance to Beijing in 2019. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Kiribati received more than $4.2 million from China for “livelihood projects”. A win for Maamau will make China confident of its growing clout in the Pacific and strike a blow to Taiwan’s hope to re-gain an ally.
Berina, on the other hand, is China-sceptic and wishes to re-instate ties with Taipei. A veteran politician, Berina quit the ruling Tobwaan Kiribati Party after Mammau ended ties with Taiwan last year and cemented ties with China instead.
Taiwan is currently recognised by just 15 countries and re-securing relations with Kiribati would be a diplomatic victory for Tsai Ing-Wen and her government.
Former President Antone Tong has described the campaign as one of the most aggressive in the country’s history. According to the Justice Ministry, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people registering to vote, particularly in the South Tarawa and Betio constituencies.
Implications for the Pacific
Although Kiribati has a total land area of just 800 square kilometres, its location is of strategic importance to countries such as the US and Australia. Chinese presence in the Pacific has increased and directly threatens US authority in the region.
According to experts, there are two main reasons the United States is worried if Kiribati re-elects the pro-China Mammau. First, there is a possibility of China 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 for Chinese warships under the guise of development for tourism purposes worries Washington.
Secondly, Western intelligence agencies have privately expressed concerns that China has used and wants to use Kiribati’s space tracking station to monitor U.S. missile and other weapons tests in the Pacific, security sources told Reuters. China claims that the station is only for ‘peaceful purposes’.
While feelings towards Beijing are divided amongst the local population, feelings towards the US are largely positive due to cultural and historical reasons. Washington was responsible for liberating Kiribati from Japan during WWII.
When Kiribati gained independence from Great Britain in 1979, 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.
However, according to Teburoro Tito, Kiribati’s representative at the United Nations, the friendship treaty could be abrogated with a 6-month notice.
With anti-China rhetoric on the rise due to Beijing’s poor handling of the coronavirus of its bullying tactics at home and abroad, Kiribati’s elections could not have come at a better time. A victory for Berina would bring a sigh of relief for the United States as well as Australia, both allies currently entangled in various disputes with China.
Written by Armaan Srivastava