A few days ago when activists in Glasgow in the UK, where COP26 Summit
was held, were busy in petitioning the world’s governments to protect 30 percent of the global ocean, Kiribati, a small Pacific island country of low-lying atolls was discussing opening up its largest marine reserves to commercial fishing—all this under the influence of China.
The marine reserve, lying in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) of
Kiribati, falls under UNESCO world heritage site. But Pacific country’s President TanetiMaamau, during a recent Cabinet meeting decided to open up the marine reserve of the PIPA, which is almost the size of California, and is home to more than 250 coral species and 520 species of fish, to commercial fishing. The Kiribati government said the move will fetch over $200 million in cash every year by allowing tuna fishing in the marine reserves. 1News, a New Zealand-based media outlet said, “There are undertones that China could have influenced the drastic decision.” In this regard, last week when a question was asked to China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin about China influencing the Kiribati government to open up to commercial fishing its large marine reserves, his
response was: “China fully respects the will of the government and people in the cooperation with Pacific island countries including Kiribati. Conducted in an open and aboveboard manner, such cooperation is widely welcomed by various sectors in those countries. It is hoped that relevant sides can view this in an objective light and stop unwarranted hype.”
It was a typical convoluted response from the Chinese side. Despite this,
various media reports suggest that China was looking towards this attractive proposition of fishing in the Kiribati marine reserves area much before 2019, the year when the highly important strategic Pacific island country restored its diplomatic relations with Beijing after ending recognition of Taiwan.
Experts say entry to the prized marine reserve will give China not only an
advantage in fishing, but also facilitate in making a strong presence in economic, political and strategic areas of Kiribati. Moreover, they say China is eyeing the Kanton Island of the Pacific country, where the former wants to upgrade an airstrip for military purposes. “One of the dozens of islands in the Kiribati group is Kanton. It has a population of just two dozen people. It makes no real economic contribution to Kiribati. China is proposing to upgrade an airstrip on Kanton built by the Americans during World War II. It’s hardly been used since the war, and certainly not commercially. Why would China want to upgrade an airstrip that’s remote and largely disused,” asked Anthony Bergin and Jeffrey Wall in their article published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in June 2021. Kanton lies just 3,000km southwest of Hawaii and is very close to US military interests in the Pacific. Americans are worried that if the Kiribati government under President TanetiMaamau allows China to upgrade the airstrip at Kanton, the US and its allies’ interests in the Pacific will come under easy targets. If 1News is to
be believed, China has already provided funding to develop and upgrade a 2-km (6,562ft) long airstrip on the island, located midway between Asia and the Americas.
In May 2021, when common people and opposition parties in Kiribati raised
hue and cry and international media criticized President TanetiMaamau for the alleged deal with China over the Kanton airstrip, the government of the Pacific island came out with a statement, maintaining that “the project was meant for nonmilitary purposes and aimed at bolstering tourism”.
As per a Reuters’ report, the Pacific island government admitted that the
Chinese government had provided grant support for a feasibility study of
Kantonisland. The Chinese Foreign Ministry too admitted in the second week of May, rather convolutedly, that it was exploring plans for upgrading and improving the airstrip at the Kiribati government. Analysts say Kiribati is not only the island nation where China has a presence, the Middle Kingdom has quietly and subtly enlarged its footprint in countries like Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon island, Palau, Tonga, Micronesia, Marshall Islands and others.
According to the United States Institute of Peace, an American federal
institution, China is emerging as an important diplomatic and economic partner for the small and far-flung Pacific island countries. As the economies of the Pacific island countries reel in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese loans and aid are likely to become even more important in the coming months. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it got an opportunity to further solidify its engagement with the smaller island nations of the Pacific as crippled economy of these countries left them with no option but to lean towards Beijing for more funds and grants. China provided $100,000 to Vanuatu, around $ 200,000 to Tonga and
more than $4.3 million to Fiji towards Covid-19 preparedness in April 2020.
This year in January, Vanuatu with a population of 300,000 accepted a US
$12 million grant from the Chinese government. As per Reuters, one-third of Cook Island’s $153.2 million external debt lies with China-linked bodies like Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and China’s Exim Bank; Tonga’s overall loans from China have exceeded $115 million; Papua New Guinea has so far cornered over $590 million loans from China. Overall, 11 Pacific island nations, including Fiji owe 1.3 billion in loans to China, which is the region’s biggest bilateral lender. In the case of China, it has been often seen that no economic assistance to a country comes without some clandestine conditions attached to it. PLA officials are said to have approached Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Tonga too for development of military bases. Remember, Vanuatu was in news in 2018 for offering China its island to develop a military base there. Vanuatu which lies 2000 km away from Australia though denied that it was allowing China to develop a
military base on its soil. However, as per Asia and the Pacific Policy Society, there is a difference between mirage and reality. In China’s case, there is no mirage but only a reality. Between 2006 and 2019, as per the Australian think tank, the PLA delegation paid 24 visits to the Pacific island countries. By undertaking such visits, the Australian think tank said, Chinese PLAs in their publicity campaign tried to build their image as a benign force dedicated to human security, even as in reality they were engaged in strengthening their position in the Pacific island nations. All this has set alarm bells ringing in Washington DC, Canberra and their allies, especially given that Kiribati or Vanuatu where China is reportedly developing military bases, are a few thousand miles away from the US or Australia.
In this background, how the US-led Quad or AUKUS counter challenges thrown by China will have to be closely watched.