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How Kiribati was lost to China

NewsHow Kiribati was lost to China

While China builds a fish plant that gives jobs to I-Kiribati in Kiribati, Australia promotes a scheme where young men and women leave their families behind to work temporary low skilled jobs that Australians don’t want to do. New Zealand gives lectures on gender equality. China says it will give planes and ferries, so women can affordably travel and be evacuated in a medical crisis.


Wentworth, Canada: When I needed help, the people of the Republic of Kiribati helped me—in fact possibly saved my life. Now the Kiribati government is asking for help for their people, and who is helping them? Not India. Not Western countries. It’s China.

It’s infuriating. Not just because of the failure of “our side” to do the right—and the smart—thing, and just listen to Kiribati and help it be secure. Not just because it makes Kiribati a target in a potential Indo-Pacific war it did not create. Not just because the inevitable influx of investment-linked Chinese will just as inevitably bring with them the same gambling, prostitution, drugs and more they have brought across the Pacific islands.

But because the I-Kiribati (people of Kiribati) don’t deserve the pain of being on the front line of a brutal conflict. Again.

Let me introduce you to Kiribati, a country of beautiful islands scattered over the central Pacific, with exceptionally good-hearted people. The population is around 112,000 but each tiny habitable island can qualify for its own 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). So, including its EEZ, Kiribati covers about as much of the planet as all of India. And there are lots of fish, including valuable tuna, swimming in its waters.

It’s also highly strategic. So much so that on the same day Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, it invaded key islands in Kiribati. Liberating the islands from the Japanese (who had brought Korean labourers to build military infrastructure) was essential for the Allies—and hard won. The 1943 Battle of Tarawa alone cost close to 6,400 Americans, Japanese and Koreans lives—lost in 76 hours of some of the most up-close, desperate and determined fighting of the War.

So when, around 20 years ago, a new expansionist Asian power, China, put up the China Space Tarawa Tracking and Control Station, in part to monitor US military activity in the (relatively) nearby Marshall Islands, alarm bells went off in capitals around the world. In response, in 2003, Kiribati’s then Prime Minister Anote Tong, decided to switch diplomatic recognition from China to Taiwan, which would force the Chinese to leave due to their “One China” policy.

Or so he thought. While official Chinese diplomatic representation was shut down, and the Station dismantled—with China saying it was taken away for “upgrading”—Chinese-government linked people stayed behind. Tong kept getting middle of the night calls pressuring him to change his mind. Eventually, he changed his number.

But—and this is the important bit—while Taiwan turned the Station into a demonstration farm, and the West patted itself on the back, China never really left. As in many countries that recognise Taiwan, especially ones that are strategically located, China adjusted its policy to use economic engagement to keep its foot in the door, waiting for the time it could kick it open.

That effective Chinese local intelligence network identified entry areas. For example, the Government of Kiribati went into business with Chinese-backed companies to set up a fish processing plant—something Kiribati desperately needed to get value added from their vast fisheries. In 2012, the US$8 million plant opened on Tarawa, and now employs a couple hundred I-Kiribati.

This repeated in a range of other sectors. All while, on the books, Kiribati was “safely” in the Taiwanese sphere.

So, when in 2019 the government of Kiribati announced it was shifting recognition back to China, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But it was.

To understand that surprise, I need to tell you about when I got sick in Kiribati. It was my first visit, in the late 1990s. Being a journalist, I wandered around Tarawa talking to government officials, local journalists, the usual. Having asked, as usual, whom else I could learn from, one of the government officials recommended a person at the British High Commission.

That person was quiet, thoughtful and indeed very knowledgeable. When asked about visiting the outer islands, he explained that there are no tourist accommodations in the outer areas, so a local family would have to agree to take me in, with the approval of the village elders.

He suggested a specific island, and a specific person, and made the calls that made it possible for me to be —a few days and a long flight later—on the atoll of Butaritari sitting on a raised wooden platform under a thatched roof drinking coconut water with local elder Winnie Powell.

Winnie had agreed to host me. She got more than she bargained for. By the next day I was seriously ill. There was no western medic available and no possible evacuation to the hospital on the main island because the country’s one working plane was on government duty.

Luckily, Winnie was an expert in traditional medicine. For days she sat by my bedside, dispensing local remedies, massaging down the fever and telling distracting stories. She was the epitome of I-Kiribati culture—unique, knowledgeable, empathetic, practical, funny, giving.

Eventually, the plane came, the hospital declared it dengue, and I went home—forever grateful to Winnie and her country.

So, what does that have to do with China? Not long after that, the UK closed its High Commission in Kiribati. With it, went that knowledge and those contacts.

Currently, there are only three permanent diplomatic representatives in Tarawa. China, Australia and New Zealand. Australia and New Zealand, members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (with the US, UK and Canada), are the ones that are supposed to help the “allies”—including to a degree India—understand what is going on in Kiribati. But their approach is very different to that of China—or even the UK when it was there.

Former regional colonial powers themselves, Canberra and Wellington both promote policies, such as the PACER Plus trade agreement, that assume it would be “better” if Pacific island countries “integrated” their economies and security architecture into Australia and New Zealand. Rather than learn more about, and strengthen, Kiribati on its own terms, they would prefer places like Kiribati just become more like them, under their “guidance”.

So, while China builds a fish plant that gives jobs to I-Kiribati in Kiribati, Australia promotes a scheme where young men and women leave their families behind to work temporary low skilled jobs that Australians don’t want to do.

New Zealand gives lectures on gender equality. China says it will give planes and ferries, so women can affordably travel to improve their education, visit family and sell goods. And be evacuated in a medical crisis.

Australian and New Zealand NGOs use the fragility of the islands to raise money and awareness about climate change. China says it’s going to bring in the sort of dredgers it used to build islands in the South China Sea to reinforce Kiribati’s shores.

So why be surprised the government of Kiribati thought it would be better for their people to align with China? And why be surprised by photos like the one circulating the other week of the Chinese Ambassador being honoured with a traditional island welcome normally reserved for in-laws?

We didn’t have people in the country who offered a viable courtship alternative or noticed the engagement, and now we are shocked and disapproving of the marriage? Not a good look.

Currently, from the I-Kiribati point of view, their only non-China choice, Australia and New Zealand, seems to connote subservience.

And, even though the I-Kiribati have a lot of experience with the deadly fallout of geopolitics, they clearly hope they can ride the dragon without being seared.

But once the prostitutes, bribes, drug cartels, fish depleting fleets, telecom intercepts and more are in place, is China just going to rebuild Kiribati islands like they did in the South China Sea without requiring a piece of land for their now upgraded “Station”—like they did in the South China Sea?

And, yes, you can tell the I-Kiribati the only reason China is being so solicitous is because it wants strategic positioning. And they will rightly reply, “We know. And what’s our choice?”

We need to give them—and the many other countries in the same position—that choice. It’s not about a bidding war. It’s about being there, with quiet, thoughtful people, listening and making calls. India, Japan, the US and others need more people on the ground, working together. Kiribati, and others, need more choices. They are good people. They will help us. If we truly help them. If we are family.

Winnie Powell’s atoll, Butaritari, was the site of two famous, difficult battles during World War Two—the Raid on Makin Island (1942) and the Battle of Makin (1943). The women of Butaritari wear metal hair combs made from the fuselage of a downed Japanese warplane. It would be much better for everyone if the next Americans sent to Kiribati were diplomats, not liberators.

Cleo Paskal is a non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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