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Tiny island nations at the center of giant geopolitical rivalry
03:37 - Source: CNN
Brisbane, Australia CNN  — 

On a small group of atolls in the central Pacific Ocean, Kiribati islanders celebrated their Independence Day Tuesday with a President who had skipped the region’s first face-to-face meeting in three years.

President Taneti Maamau not only opted out of the Pacific Island Forum meeting in Suva, Fiji, but withdrew the country from the 18-member group as a matter of principle over a dispute involving its leadership.

Some saw Beijing’s hand in Maamau’s decision to leave the alliance, a claim China’s Foreign Ministry rejected as “completely groundless” during a regular news briefing Monday.

But on Tuesday, it was the United States’ turn to step forward with incentives for Pacific Island leaders to counter Beijing’s efforts to dominate an increasingly competitive geopolitical tussle in a region of great strategic importance.

A senior administration official told reporters in a call the US was “significantly stepping up (its) game in the Pacific Islands.”

The incentives included more funding for fisheries, extra aid, and offers of new US embassies in the Pacific – including one in Kiribati, which along with the Solomon Islands appears to be moving closer to China.

The measures will be personally presented to Pacific leaders Wednesday in a virtual address by US Vice President Kamala Harris – underscoring Washington’s efforts to stress the Pacific’s importance to US strategy.

Kanton Island in Kiribati.

It’s not clear if Kiribati’s decision to pull out of the forum influenced the scale of the US commitment – the US has been promising greater engagement in the region for months as China sought to strike a flurry of deals with Pacific leaders. But Kiribati’s decision to go it alone while tightening its economic and diplomatic ties with China shows the depth of the diplomatic challenges in the region – and the pressure Pacific leaders are under as they try to manage their domestic and regional affairs.

“There’s clear regional and subregional dynamics at play,” said Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand. “What is unclear is what President Maamau’s gameplan is, what he’s hoping to achieve by withdrawing Kiribati from the forum, and how this will benefit the people of Kiribati.”

China may deny playing a role in Kiribati’s decision not to attend the forum, but Professor Anne-Marie Brady, a specialist on China’s policies in the Pacific at the University of Canterbury, said Beijing’s influence is clear.

“Kiribati appears to have been given instructions not to attend,” Brady said, based on her observations of China’s recent activity in the Pacific. “The timing of the announcement shows it is meant to be a disruptor to Pacific unity, just when it was about to come up with a collective response on China’s attempt to set up a security treaty in the region.”

The venue of this year's Pacific Island Forum,  Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, Fiji.

An island nation with vast fishing resources

Kiribati is a group of 33 atolls scattered over a large area of the central Pacific, covering 3.5 million square kilometers (1.3 million square miles) of ocean – an area larger than India. Around 100,000 people live there under pro-Beijing President Maamau, who was re-elected for a second term in 2020.

Three years ago, when the Pacific Island Forum last met in Tuvalu in August 2019, Kiribati was aligned with Taiwan, the democratic island that China’s Communist Party regards as its sovereign territory, despite having never ruled it. But within weeks of the forum, Kiribati followed the Solomon Islands in switching its allegiance to Beijing. And within months, Maamau had met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing to sign a memorandum of understanding for cooperation on China’s Belt and Road initiative. Xi said China was willing to integrate the Belt and Road with Maamau’s 20-year vision (KV20) – from 2016-2036 – to create a “wealthier, happier and peaceful country.”

“Kiribati is absolutely desperate for development, so it will be signing as many development agreements as possible,” said Jessica Collins, a research fellow with the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Island Program. “Thirty percent of Kiribiti’s population live in poverty. You’ve got a growth rate of about 0.3 to 0.6%. They’re really going to be struggling in the current economic climate.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets Kiribati President Taneti Maamau in Tarawa, Kiribati, on May 27.

According to Maamau’s KV20 blueprint, success depends on building the country’s key sectors of tourism and fishing. Not only does Kiribati offer access to stunningly beautiful coral reefs, it has one of the world’s largest exclusive economic zones.

“China is very invested in accessing Kiribati’s EEZ and accessing Kiribati’s fisheries,” Powles said. Though it’s unclear what role China played in Kiribati’s decision to leave the forum – if any – Powles said there has been “significant concern about the level and extent of Chinese influence in Kiribati at the highest political levels.”

Diplomatic maneuvers overshadow climate crisis

Washington’s promise of greater support and engagement came at the end of the forum’s first full day, as leaders sought to present a united front over their biggest challenge – the climate crisis.

“The time for slow and steady action has passed,” Vanuatu Prime Minister Bob Loughman told the forum. “The Pacific Islands Forum leaders have called climate change the single greatest threat to the livelihood, security and well-being of our people.”

To help the Pacific Island respond to the threat, the US said it and its allies and partners – Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom – would establish the Partners in the Blue Pacific to support Pacific priorities and boost Pacific regionalism. It mirrors the name of the 50-year Blue Pacific plan the Islands are expected to launch on Thursday – with or without Kiribati.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives in Fiji on July 11 for the Pacific Islands Forum.

Other US commitments include tripling funding to $60 million a year for 10 years to secure US fishing rights in the Pacific, the release of America’s strategy on the Pacific Islands and the appointment of the first US envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum.

To achieve the US’s soft power goals, the Peace Corps will return to four countries including Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu and the US will increase aid funding to the region.

“What we’re putting on the table is a true partnership based on friendship, and respect and transparency,” said the senior administration official. “What we offer is an affirmative positive agenda to take on short and long term challenges together.”

Strategic importance

For China and the US, the entire Pacific region offers security and opportunity. But Kiribati’s location offers something special – a potential military port of call, as it has done in the past.

During World War II, the US and its allies used the single runway at Canton airport – now called Kanton Island Airport – as an important refueling stop for planes entering and leaving the Pacific.

But when the war ended, its usefulness as a base waned, and the airport fell into disrepair.

In 1979, when Kiribati gained independence from Britain, the allied connection to the airport ended, but the US signed the Treaty of Tarawa, giving it the power to veto the use of former US facilities by third parties on Kanton and other islands.

“The treaty says that facilities on the 14 islands where the US formerly claimed sovereignty could not be used for military purposes without the agreement of the US,” Brady said. But she added there are ways around that. “A dual use facility, where the military functions are not immediately activated, could get around that provision.”

“China is looking for a location for military facilities in the Pacific,” she said. “As elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, the way they have been going about this is via dual use port and air facilities.”

Last year Kiribati said China planned to upgrade the airstrip to better connect the islands and improve tourism – a key part of its KV20 blueprint – according to Reuters.

In May, the Guardian quoted Teburoro Tito, Kiribati’s ambassador to the US and the United Nations, as saying that China had agreed in principle to finance the runway’s upgrade, after the US said financing could take years. “The US turned us down,” Tito said, according to the article.

CNN reached out to the US State Department to confirm the claim but didn’t receive a response.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told CNN Tuesday that China is “exploring the possibility of upgrading Kanton Airport with Kiribati” at the request of the Kiribati government to aid travel within the island country.

The spokesperson added that China engages in “mutually beneficial cooperation” with Pacific Island nations “based on the concept of community of common destiny, truthfulness and goodwill.”

“China provides assistance to the extent of its ability without any political string attached,” the spokesperson said. “The goal is to develop economy and improve democracy.”

A State Department spokesperson told CNN the US government welcomes contributions to regional development, as long as they adhere to “high standards.”

“As the PRC’s involvement in the region has grown, though, we have seen a range of increasingly problematic behaviors, including its assertion of unlawful maritime claims and the ongoing militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea, predatory economic activities such as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, investments that undermine good governance and promote corruption, and human rights abuses,” the spokesperson said, referring to the country by its formal acronym, the People’s Republic of China.

Pacific leaders have a busy agenda over the next two days as they consider the US’s renewed vigor in the region – and any rival offers from Beijing.

“It is immediately obvious that geopolitics have intruded on the forum’s agenda and will be a great distraction,” said Patricia O’Brien, a visiting fellow in Pacific Affairs at Australian National University, before the US released its plan.

Among leaders’ other priorities will be to continue efforts to bring Kiribati back into the “Pacific family.” Though it remains to be seen if President Maamau sees a brighter future alone – backed by China – and if other Pacific nations will join him.

CNN’s Beijing Bureau, Jasmine Wright and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.