Pacific Islands Forum: US steps up its game as China circles the Pacific

President Taneti Maamau not only withdrew from the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Suva, Fiji, but also expelled the country from the 18-member group over a leadership dispute.

Some saw Beijing’s hand in Ma’amau’s decision to withdraw from the alliance, a statement that China’s foreign ministry dismissed as “completely baseless” during a regular briefing on Monday.

But on Tuesday it was the turn of the United States to step forward and offer incentives to Pacific island leaders to counter Beijing’s efforts to dominate a geopolitical struggle against increasingly fierce competition in a region of great strategic importance.

A senior administration official told reporters in a telephone conversation that the US has “significantly stepped up (its) game in the Pacific Islands.”

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

The measures will be personally presented to Pacific leaders on Wednesday in a virtual address by US Vice President Kamala Harris, highlighting Washington’s efforts to highlight the importance of the Pacific to US strategy.

Canton Island in Kiribati.

It is not clear whether Kiribati’s decision to withdraw from the forum has affected the scale of the US commitment – the US has been promising more involvement in the region for months now as China sought to strike a series of deals with Pacific leaders. But Kiribati’s decision to go it alone, strengthening its economic and diplomatic ties with China, shows the depth of diplomatic problems in the region and the pressure Pacific leaders are under as they try to manage their domestic and regional affairs.

“The game clearly shows regional and sub-regional dynamics,” said Anna Powles, senior lecturer at the Center for Defense and Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand. “What’s not clear is what President Maamaw’s game plan is, what he hopes to achieve by removing Kiribati from the forum, and what benefit it will bring to the people of Kiribati.”

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

“It looks like Kiribati was instructed not to attend,” Brady said, based on her observations of recent Chinese activity in the Pacific. “The timing of the announcement shows that it is intended to disrupt the unity of the Pacific region, just as it was about to come out with a collective response to China’s attempt to conclude a security treaty in the region.”

This year's Pacific Island Forum is hosted by the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, Fiji.

Island state with huge fish resources

Kiribati is a group of 33 atolls scattered across 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. About 100,000 people live there under the Pro-Beijing President Ma’amau, re-elected for a second term in 2020.

Three years ago, when the Pacific Islands Forum last met in Tuvalu in August 2019, Kiribati was tied to Taiwan, a democratic island that the Chinese Communist Party considers its sovereign territory despite never ruling over it. But a few weeks after the forum, Kiribati followed the Solomon Islands in switching your loyalty to Beijing. And a few months later, Maamaw met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing to sign a memorandum of understanding on cooperation under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Xi said China ready to integrate One Belt, One Road with Maamau’s 20-year vision (Q20) – from 2016-2036 – for creating “a richer, happier and more peaceful country.”

“Kiribati is in desperate need of development and will be signing as many development agreements as possible,” said Jessica Collins, fellow at the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program. “Thirty percent of the population of Kiribiti lives in poverty. You have a growth rate of 0.3 to 0.6%. They will really have to struggle in the current economic climate.”

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

According to the Maamau KV20 plan, success depends on the development of the country’s key sectors such as tourism and fisheries. Kiribati not only offers access to stunningly beautiful coral reefs, but is also one of the largest exclusive economic zones in the world.

“China is very interested in accessing the Kiribati EEZ and accessing the Kiribati fisheries,” Powles said. While it’s not clear what role China played in Kiribati’s decision to leave the forum – if there was one – Powles said “high political levels raise serious concerns about the level and extent of Chinese influence in Kiribati.”

Diplomatic maneuvers overshadow the climate crisis

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

“The time for slow and consistent action is over,” Vanuatu Prime Minister Bob Lafman told the forum. “Pacific Islands Forum leaders have named climate change as the most serious threat to the livelihoods, 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 UK – will create Blue Pacific Partners to support Pacific priorities and strengthen Pacific regionalism. This reflects the name of the 50-year Blue Pacific plan, which the islands are expected to launch on Thursday – with or without Kiribati.

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

Other U.S. commitments include tripling funding to $60 million a year over 10 years to secure U.S. fishing rights in the Pacific, unveiling America’s strategy for the Pacific Islands, and appointing the first U.S. envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum.

To achieve US 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 offer is a true partnership based on friendship, respect and transparency,” a senior administration official said. “We offer a positive agenda for jointly addressing short-term and long-term challenges.”

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 been in the past.

During World War II, the US and its allies used the only runway at Canton Airport, now called Canton Island Airport, as an important refueling stop for aircraft arriving and leaving the Pacific.

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

In 1979, when Kiribati gained independence from Great Britain, allied communications with the airport ended, but the United States signed Treaty of Tarawawhich gives him the power to veto the use of former US facilities by third parties on Canton and other islands.
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“The treaty states that facilities on 14 islands previously claimed by the US cannot be used for military purposes without US consent,” Brady said. But she added that there are ways around this. “A dual-use installation, where military functions are not activated immediately, can circumvent this provision.”

“China is looking for a place for military installations in the Pacific,” she said. “Like everywhere else in the Indo-Pacific, they use dual-use ports and air facilities.”

Kiribati said last year that China plans to upgrade the runway to better connect the islands and improve tourism, a key part of its KV20 plan. according to Reuters.
In May, The Guardian quotes Teburoro Tito, Kiribati’s ambassador to the US and the United Nations said China had agreed in principle to fund the runway upgrade after the US said the funding could take years. “The US turned us down,” Tito said, according to the article.

CNN contacted the US State Department to confirm the claim, but received no response.

China’s foreign ministry told CNN on Tuesday that China is “exploring upgrading Canton Airport along with Kiribati” at the request of the Kiribati government to help travel within the island nation.

The spokesman added that China is engaged in “mutually beneficial cooperation” with the Pacific island states “based on the concept of common destiny, truthfulness and goodwill.”

“China provides assistance to the best of its ability without any political conditions,” the spokesman said. “The goal is to develop the economy and improve democracy.”

Pacific leaders have a busy agenda for the next two days as they contemplate renewed US activity in the region, as well as any competing proposals from Beijing.

“It’s immediately apparent that geopolitics has invaded the forum’s agenda and will be a major distraction,” said Patricia O’Brien, visiting fellow for Pacific affairs at the Australian National University, before the US unveiled its plan.

Among other leaders’ priorities will be continued efforts to bring Kiribati back into the “Pacific family.” While it remains to be seen if President Maamaw sees a bright future on his own… supported by China – and whether other Pacific countries will join it.