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

President Taneti Maamau not only opted out of the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Suva, Fiji, but removed the country from the 18-member group on principle due to a dispute involving its leadership.

Some saw Beijing’s hand in Maamau’s decision to leave the alliance, a claim China’s foreign ministry dismissed as “completely baseless” at a regular press briefing on Monday.

But on Tuesday, it was the United States’ turn to offer inducements to Pacific island leaders to counter Beijing’s efforts to dominate an increasingly competitive geopolitical struggle in a region of great strategic importance.

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

Incentives included more funding for fisheries, additional aid and offers for 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 on Wednesday in a virtual speech by US Vice President Kamala Harris – highlighting Washington’s efforts to highlight the importance of the Pacific to US strategy.

It’s unclear whether Kiribati’s decision to pull out of the forum influenced the extent of US engagement – the US has been promising greater engagement in the region for months as China seeks to strike a deal. wave of agreements with Pacific leaders. But Kiribati’s decision to go it alone while deepening economic and diplomatic ties with China shows the depth of diplomatic challenges in the region – and the pressure Pacific leaders are under as they try to manage their domestic and regional.

“There are clearly regional and sub-regional dynamics at play,” said Anna Powles, senior lecturer at the Center for Defense and Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand. “What’s unclear is what President Maamau’s game plan is, what he hopes to achieve by removing Kiribati from the forum, and how that will benefit the people of Kiribati.”

China can deny having played a role in Kiribati’s decision not to attend the forum, but Professor Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on China Pacific policies at the University of Canterbury, said Beijing’s influence was clear.

“Kiribati seem to have been ordered not to attend,” Brady said. “The timing of the announcement shows that she is meant to disrupt Pacific unity, just as she was set to offer a collective response to China’s attempt to implement a security treaty in the Pacific. region.”

The venue for this year's Pacific Islands Forum, Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, Fiji.

An island nation with vast fishery resources

Kiribati is a group of 33 atolls scattered over a vast 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 pro-Beijing President Maamau, who was 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 aligned with Taiwan, the democratic island that the Chinese Communist Party considers its sovereign territory, although he never ruled it. But a few weeks after the forum, Kiribati followed the Solomon Islands by shifting its allegiance to Beijing. And within months, Maamau had met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing to sign a memorandum of understanding for cooperation on China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Xi said China is willing to integrate the Belt and Road into Maamau’s (KV20) 20-year vision – from 2016 to 2036 – to create a “wealthier, happier and more peaceful country”.

“Kiribati is absolutely desperate for development, so it will sign as many development agreements as possible,” said Jess Collins, of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program. “Thirty percent of Kiribiti’s population lives in poverty. You have a growth rate of around 0.3 to 0.6%. They are going to have a really hard time in the current economic climate.”

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

According to Maamau’s KV20 plan, success depends on building the country’s key sectors, tourism and fisheries. Not only does Kiribati offer access to stunningly beautiful coral reefs, it has one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world.

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

Diplomatic maneuvers overshadow the climate crisis

Washington’s promise of increased support and engagement came at the end of the forum’s first full day, as leaders sought to present a united front in the face of their greatest challenge, the climate crisis.

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

To help the Pacific Islands respond to the threat, the United States said its allies and partners – Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom – would establish Blue Pacific Partners to support the Pacific priorities and strengthen Pacific regionalism. . It reflects the name of the 50-year Blue Pacific plan the islands are set 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 U.S. commitments include tripling funding to $60 million a year for 10 years to secure U.S. fishing rights in the Pacific, release of the U.S. Pacific Islands Strategy, and appointment of the first U.S. envoy to the Forum. of the Pacific Islands.

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 funding for assistance to the region.

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

Strategic importance

For China and the United States, 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 United States and its allies used the single runway at Canton Airport, now called Kanton Island Airport, as an important refueling stop for aircraft entering and leaving the Pacific.

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

In 1979, when Kiribati gained independence from Britain, the Allied connection to the airport ended, but the United States signed the Treaty of Tarawa, giving it the power to veto the airport. use of former US facilities by third parties on Kanton and other islands.
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“The treaty stipulates that facilities on the 14 islands where the United States once claimed sovereignty could not be used for military purposes without United States consent,” Brady said. But she added that there are ways around it. “A dual-use facility, where military functions are not immediately activated, could circumvent this provision.”

“China is looking for a location for military installations in the Pacific,” she said. “Like elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, the way they do 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 plan – according to Reuters.
In May, the Guardian quoted Teburoro Tito, Kiribati’s ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, as saying that China had agreed in principle to fund the modernization of the runway, after the United States said the funding could take years. “The United States turned us down,” Tito said, according to the article.

CNN contacted the US State Department to confirm the request, but did not receive a response.

Beijing told Reuters last year it was considering upgrading the airstrip at the request of the Kiribati government, for use by civilians traveling to Kiribati. CNN has asked Beijing for an update on the status of the airstrip plans.

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

“It’s immediately obvious that geopolitics has crept into the agenda of the forum and will be a big distraction,” said Patricia O’Brien, a visiting fellow in Pacific affairs at the Australian National University, before the United States does publish their plan.

Among the leaders’ other priorities will be continued efforts to bring Kiribati back into the “Pacific family”. Although it remains to be seen whether President Maamau sees a brighter future on his own – supported by China — and whether other Pacific nations will join.

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