China opened an embassy on a tiny, remote Pacific island during the pandemic. Here's why

Waves pummel the coast of Temwaiku, a village on the capitol island of South Tarawa, Kiribati.

(CNN)On a blue-sky day in May, as the coronavirus raged across the world, the Chinese flag was raised on a remote nation with a total population of 116,000, thousands of miles from Beijing.

The opening of a Chinese embassy on Kiribati, a nation of 33 atolls and reef islands in the central Pacific, might have seemed strange -- particularly during a pandemic. Just three other countries have embassies in the island state: Australia, New Zealand and Cuba.
Yet Kiribati is the site of growing geopolitical competition.
    Last September, it switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. China considers the self-governed island of Taiwan a breakaway province and has poached seven of its diplomatic allies since 2016.
    And this week, Kiribati's pro-Beijing President Taneti Maamau -- who oversaw the country's diplomatic switch -- won a closely watched election after campaigning for closer ties with China, defeating an opposition rival who was sympathetic to Taiwan.
    Kiribati is the latest example of Beijing's growing influence in the Pacific, which consists of a string of resource-rich islands that control vital waterways between Asia and America.
    The picturesque islands have long been aligned with the US, which has a large military presence, and allies such as Australia, the region's largest donor and security partner. But in recent years, many have forged closer ties with China due to Beijing's diplomatic and economic outreach -- creating a fault line for geopolitical tensions.