The presidential runoff in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati between a pro-Beijing leader and an opposition candidate sympathetic to Taiwan is the most aggressive campaign in the nation’s history, former Kiribati president Anote Tong said.
The vote on Monday could open the door for Taiwan to reclaim the strategic ally it lost to China last year, with the opposition campaigning on a platform critical of the diplomatic switch.
Kiribati, the site of a mothballed Chinese space tracking station in the central Pacific, has a finely balanced parliament with loyalties evenly split between President Taneti Maamau and ally-turned-rival Banuera Berina, who broke from the government last year, citing concerns over the switch.
“Primarily, it has been about the Taiwan-China issue,” Tong said. “In my experience, it’s the most aggressive campaign that I’ve seen,” describing a bidding war of uncosted policies and combative claims over whether or not Kiribati would benefit from relations with Beijing.
Tong, who said he had been impartial since retiring from politics in 2016, oversaw a shift in Kiribati’s ties from China to Taiwan during his first term in 2003.
“There are some strong feelings against China particularly with the very active participation of the Chinese diplomatic mission during the campaign,” Tong said.
The Chinese embassy in Kiribati said Beijing does not interfere with the internal affairs of other nations.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said there had been rich results since the nations resumed diplomatic relations last year.
“China is willing to work with the Kiribati government, on the basis of the ‘one China’ principle, to promote the continuous development of Sino-Kiribati ties, to help with the well-being of both countries people,” the ministry said.
Kiribati received more than US$4.2 million from China for “livelihood projects” in the weeks leading up to the vote, a Kiribati government statement said.
The offices of the candidates Maamau and Berina did not respond to requests for comment.
Diplomatic sources say Washington and Canberra are watching the election closely, given concerns about China’s increased role in the Pacific.
“We took the Pacific for granted too long and didn’t pay enough attention, giving China its opportunity,” a senior Western official said on condition of anonymity, referring to Kiribati and the Solomon Island’s decisions last year to recognize Beijing.
The US embassy in Fiji, which oversees relations with Kiribati, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Many Pacific island nations, long-aligned with the US and its allies, have been forging closer ties with China in recent years amid a push by Beijing to boost its diplomatic and financial clout in the region.
Taiwan, which shares a robust yet unofficial relationship with the US, now has only formal allies left worldwide.
A member of the Kiribati parliament, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said Kiribati would want to re-establish a working relationship with Taiwan if Berina wins.
“I believe Taiwan would be invited back; whether we take the next move of terminating relations with China remains to be seen,” the member said.
The Taiwanese government is also watching the election, but officials have cautioned against being overly optimistic a new president would move to quickly reinstate formal relations.
Western intelligence agencies have privately expressed concern China has used and wants to use again Kiribati’s space tracking station to watch US missile and other weapons tests in the Pacific, security sources said.
The Chinese ministry said that station was only for “peaceful purposes,” without elaborating.
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