China is aggressively working on expanding its sphere of influence in Pacific Island Countries (PIC) by negotiating security deals with two more nations after its recent pact with the Solomon Islands that has alarmed Australia and the US.
“They are in talks with Kiribati, and at least one more Pacific island country over an agreement that would cover much of the same ground as that with the Solomon Islands,” an unnamed intelligence official from a US ally told the Financial Times.
China’s foreign ministry confirmed the signing of a security agreement with the Solomon Islands in April, which according to the ‘leaked documents,’ will allow Beijing to deploy forces to protect Chinese personnel and major projects in the Solomon Islands.
The island nation could also request China to send armed police, military personnel, and other law enforcement agencies. Moreover, there is a provision for China to make ship visits to carry out logistical replenishment and have stopovers and transitions in the Solomon Islands.
One US official said that China had set its sights on Kiribati for some time. “They’ve had on-and-off discussions on this, not just for months but for years,” said the official, who added that Beijing was trying to establish “strategic perches” on Pacific island nations.
Michael Foon, Kiribati’s foreign affairs secretary, denied his government was in “discussions on a security agreement with any partner.”
However, Tessie Eria Lambourne, leader of the opposition in Kiribati, said she was not aware of the talks, but the country’s rapidly changing relationship with China worried the locals.
“We’re next in China’s plan to establish its military presence in strategic locations in our region,” Eria said.
The news comes when US President Joe Biden has just begun his first visit to Asia in a bid to reinforce Washington’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and counter China’s rise.
Kiribati is located only 3000 km away from the US state of Hawaii, where the US Indo-Pacific Command is based, potentially bringing the Chinese military closer to the US forces in the region.
China is already working with Kiribati to upgrade an airstrip on the archipelago’s Kanton Island, built by the Americans during World War Two.
The Kanton island has a population of just two dozen people, and it makes no real economic contribution to Kiribati. The airstrip has hardly been used since the war, and certainly not commercially, which begs to question why China would want to upgrade an airstrip that’s remote and rarely used.
Experts suggest that Kiribati sits on the geographic center of the Pacific, strategically positioned across major sea lanes between North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Therefore, any significant build-up on Kanton could give China an advantage in the event of a conflict.
This is an alarming development for US allies who look to Washington to supply military equipment in the event of a potential future conflict with China. For example, the US may find it difficult to intervene if China decides to invade Taiwan to reunite the island nation with the mainland forcefully.
“The island would be a fixed aircraft carrier,” an adviser to Pacific governments had told Reuters on condition of anonymity because of the project’s sensitivity.
China’s Growing Foothold In The Region
Furthermore, China just reached a deal with Vanuatu on May 20 to upgrade an international airport in Luganville, another key US military base, during the 2nd World War.
A state department official said the US took concerns about security deals, including with Kiribati, “very seriously.” He said there were fears China was also negotiating with Tonga and Vanuatu.
“The Chinese seem to be having a global effort underway to expand the places where they can operate in military or quasi-military ways,” said the state department official. “And that’s a concern.”
China’s fast-growing foothold within the PIC has been a growing concern for the US and its allies because of the geostrategic value of this region.
Tess Newton Cain, a Pacific expert with Griffith University in Australia, said the Solomon Islands deal and strengthening ties with Kiribati reflected “high energy” in a new phase of Chinese engagement.
“Those relationships are very new, and they’ve progressed quite quickly . . . That’s quite different from what we see elsewhere in the region, where the relationships are maybe a bit more mature,” she said.