Brisbane, Australia: Kiribati islanders celebrated their Independence Day, however, President Taneti Maamau skipped the region’s first face-to-face meeting in three years 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.
Reacting to the incident, the US stepped 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, reported CNN.
Other US commitments include tripling funding to USD 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.
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.
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, reported CNN.
“There’s clear regional and sub-regional 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, reported CNN.
“Kiribati appear to have been given instructions not to attend,” Brady said. “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.”
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.