China’s diplomatic ambitions in the Pacific suffered a setback on Wednesday when the party that switched recognition from Taiwan to China last year lost its majority in parliament over its handling of the move.
In the second round of parliamentary elections, the governing party and allies won 22 seats out of 45, dealing a blow to President Taneti Maamau, who previously enjoyed a comfortable majority of 31.
The rest of the seats were won by members or allies of two other parties: one of which has pledged to switch back to Taiwan, and another made up of MPs who left the governing party to create a new opposition party last fall over Maamau’s handling of the switch.
Kiribati, a country of 110,000 people in the central Pacific, severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan and established foreign relations with China in September, just a week after Solomon Islands announced it was breaking away from Taiwan. Self-ruled Taiwan has lost seven allies since 2016 when president Tsai Ing-wen was elected.
The move came as China has increased its focus on the Pacific and sought to peel off Taiwan’s allies in the region.
Kiribati is thought to be of interest partly due to its location – some islands are just 700 km from US military installations – and also due to Christmas Island, the world’s biggest atoll with a land mass of nearly 400 sq km. It lies just 2,150 km from Honolulu, home of the US Pacific Command and is far to the east of existing port facilities available to the Chinese navy.
The lightly populated island already has a giant deepwater pier and a spare runway, and its lagoon could easily be turned into a port, experts say.
“The Chinese could design the project as being intended for cruise ships, and incrementally turn it into a dual-use facility that could service Chinese warships,” said Patrick Buchan, who tracks China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
James Fanell, a former director of intelligence of the Pacific Fleet, agreed. “It’s reasonable to think they will be helping renovate port facilities and airfields in order to help the country develop,” he said. “But having Chinese ships pull in at the big pier would be clearly threatening to Honolulu, no question.”
The leader of the party that broke away from the government over its handling of the switch, Banuera Berina, is expected to be more sceptical in his dealings with China and to take a hard line against accepting loans. He and Maamau are expected to run in presidential elections due in June.
Berina said that despite being the chairman of the ruling party when the diplomatic flip took place last fall, neither he nor a number of ministers were informed of what he later concluded were secret negotiations with the Chinese that must have gone on for months, if not years.
He recalled that when the president gathered the backbenchers and cabinet members to announce the switch as a fait accompli, several members protested that Taiwan and its ambassador were widely perceived as helpful and generous in their districts, and they feared losing their seats.
“But the president assured us we shouldn’t worry about that because we would be getting campaign money from China,” he said. “I was shocked.” Maamau has denied he ever said that; he did not respond to requests for comment.
Benuera said the president had told the backbenchers that he made the switch because President Tsai Ing Wen had not proven to be a reliable partner. Maamau allegedly said Taiwan repeatedly ignored requests that it contribute to Kiribati’s Vision 2020 development plan, centered on tourism and fisheries, notably by buying Kiribati a $30m Brazilian airliner. In March, when Tsai went on an official tour of the region, she also failed to visit Kiribati, which the government denounced as a snub.
“Based on my knowledge of Taiwan politics,” said Natasha Kassam, who analyses Indo-Pacific strategy at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, “there’s almost no scenario in which Tsai would have skipped a visit to Kiribati when in the region except for one where Maamau wasn’t willing to entertain her.”
Banuera said he broke with Maamau when he found out from Taiwanese sources that in fact Tsai had been very eager to visit but was told it couldn’t happen because Maamau would be in Fiji at the time.
“The Taiwanese first offered to charter a plane so Maamau could get back in time, and when he refused, they even offered that President Tsai pick him up in Fiji on her way to Tarawa,” he said.
The Chinese foreign ministry was contacted for comment.