China’s diplomatic ambitions in the Pacific suffered a setback in Kiribati on Wednesday when the party that switched recognition from Taiwan to China last year lost its legislative majority over its handling of the move.
In the second round of legislative elections, the Tobwaan Kiribati Party and its allies won 22 seats out of 45, dealing a blow to Kiribatian President Taneti Maamau, who previously enjoyed a comfortable majority of 31.
The remaining seats were won by members or allies of two other parties: one that vows to switch recognition back to Taiwan and another made up of lawmakers who left the ruling party to create the opposition Kiribati First Party over the handling of the switch.
Kiribati, a country of 110,000 people in the central Pacific, severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan and established foreign relations with China in September last year, just a week after the Solomon Islands announced that it was breaking ties with Taiwan.
Kiribati is thought to be of interest partly due to Christmas Island, the world’s biggest atoll with a land mass of nearly 400km2, which is just 2,150km from Honolulu, home of the US Pacific Command, and is far to the east of existing port facilities available to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy.
The lightly populated island already has a giant deepwater pier and a spare runway, and its lagoon could easily be turned into a port, experts have said.
Kiribati First Party founder Banuera Berina is expected to be more skeptical in his dealings with China and to take a hard line against accepting loans.
He and Maamau are expected to run in a presidential election scheduled for June.
Despite being Tobwaan Kiribati Party chairman when the diplomatic switch took place, Berina said that neither he nor a number of ministers were informed of what he later concluded were secret negotiations with China that must have gone on for months, if not years.
When Maamau gathered the officials and Cabinet members to announce the switch as fait accompli, several protested that as Taiwan and its ambassador were widely perceived as helpful and generous in their districts, they feared losing their seats, Berina said.
“But the president assured us we shouldn’t worry about that, because we would be getting campaign money from China,” Berina said. “I was shocked.”
Maamau told the officials that he made the switch because President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) had not proven to be a reliable partner, Benuera said.
Maamau allegedly said that Taiwan repeatedly ignored requests that it contribute to Kiribati’s Vision 2020 development plan, centered on tourism and fisheries, notably by buying Kiribati a US$30 million Brazilian airliner.
In March last year, when Tsai went on an official tour of the region, she also failed to visit Kiribati, which the government denounced as a snub.
Banuera said that he broke with Maamau when he found out from Taiwanese sources that Tsai had been eager to visit, but was told that it could not happen because Maamau would be in Fiji at the time.
“The Taiwanese first offered to charter a plane so Maamau could get back in time, and when he refused, they even offered that President Tsai pick him up in Fiji on her way to Tarawa,” he said.
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