The Result could have far-reaching strategic implications for the US & its allies in the Indo-Pacific Region.
Kiribati’s incumbent Leader, President Taneti Maamau has secured a Second Term in a fiercely fought election victory that has also tightened China’s foothold in the Central Pacific.
Mr. Maamau won 26,053 votes compared to the 17,866 obtained by his rival Banuera Berina after the election campaign was dominated by bitter debate over his decision last year to switch the Pacific Nation’s Diplomatic ties to Beijing from Taiwan.
The loss of the Pro-Taiwan Opposition candidate will be a disappointment to Taiwan, which had hoped to revive ties with Kiribati. Democratic Taiwan which Beijing seeks to annex, is now recognised by just 15 countries worldwide, four of which are in the Pacific – Marshall Islands, Nauru, Tuvalu and Palau.
The result also has wider strategic implications for the struggle for influence between China and the United States and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region, with the reelection of a Pro-Beijing government helping the Chinese to consolidate their presence.
“Kiribati’s Election results almost certainly mean the island will keep diplomatic recognition of China over Taiwan,” said Derek Grossman, Senior Defence Analyst with the Rand corporation.
“This is a blow to not only Taiwan’s hopes to reestablish ties with Kiribati following the latter’s switch to China last year, but also to US, Australian, and Japanese hopes to counter China in Oceania, which has increasingly become a new geostrategic battleground in great power competition.”
Taiwan’s foreign ministry on Tuesday said it would “continue to pay attention to the country’s political situation and its possible impact on the region” and would work with like-minded countries to maintain “security, stability, freedom and democratic governance” in the Pacific.”
Despite having a small land mass, Kiribati, a Former British Colony, controls large swathes of ocean through its string of coral islands in 32 atolls dispersed across 1.3 million square miles in the Central Pacific.
The country’s Christmas atoll, which has a spare runway and deep lagoon which could easily be turned into a Port, is just 1,300 miles south of Honolulu, home to the US Pacific Command, sparking concern that China will set up its own base within reach of American military installations.
Prior to 2003, Kiribati hosted a Chinese space tracking station in a part of the world where the US tests missiles and other military hardware. Chinese officials have not confirmed if it will be reopened but the possibility, especially after a Maamau win, has stoked anxieties among western powers.
Ahead of the Election, James Fanell Former Director of Intelligence of the Pacific Fleet, said that China’s strategy to expand into the Mid-Pacific through its Belt & Road Initiative was Clear.
“Beijing’s strategy doesn’t just to threaten to engulf Kiribati into an economic “debt trap” relationship, but is also designed to establish a future military outpost that would allow the People’s Liberation Army to threaten US forces in Hawaii or isolate Australia and New Zealand in the event of a future conflict in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Meanwhile, the US is stepping up its own operations in the Pacific, operating three aircraft carriers in the region for the first time in about three years, in what appears to be a show of force after Chinese maritime manoeuvres intended to expand its reach in the South China Sea intimidate Taiwan.
The USS Nimitz and USS Theodore Roosevelt, each escorted by up to six warships and submarines, have launched joint training exercises in the Philippine Sea, while the USS Ronald Reagan is operation off Japan.