International competition to shape Kiribati’s president election

Voters of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati will choose their next president today amid an unusually high-stakes race. Incumbent

Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomes Kiribatis president Maamau in Beijing in January 2020

Photo: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Voters of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati will choose their next president today amid an unusually high-stakes race.

Incumbent President Taneti Maamau cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favour of the People’s Republic of China last September, prompting a vociferous debate over the country’s relations with its Asian partners. Popular demonstrations against Chinese interference, a swell in voter registration and Maamau’s loss of his parliamentary majority in last April’s elections hint at a victory for the pro-Taiwan opposition leader Banuera Berina. Following this outcome, ties with Taiwan will likely be restored.

Beijing, Taipei, Washington and Canberra are monitoring the election intently. Maamau’s re-election may result in the development of a Chinese naval base only 1,300 miles south of Honolulu, a dreaded proposition for American military officials. Infrastructure projects, debt obligations and government bribery have expanded Chinese influence in the Pacific, particularly in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu—the Solomon Islands switched recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019.

Expect Australia to put pressure on the US and UK to increase development aid to Oceanic nations, which are increasingly uneasy about the effects of climate change on their economies and survival. Island nations may accept political strings attached to Chinese investment unless alternative sources of capital are made available. But, regardless of the policy choices made following the election, it is very likely that US-China strategic competition will continue to intensify in the far-flung island chains.

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