China seeks security deals with Kiribati and Vanuatu

(Jan 6, 2020) Kiribati president Taneti Maamau meets China president Xi Jinping. PHOTO: MOFA China

China is intensifying its drive for influence in the Pacific by negotiating security deals with two additional island nations following a pact with the Solomon Islands, according to officials in the U.S and allied countries. 

Beijing’s talks with Kiribati, a Pacific island nation 3,000km from Hawaii where U.S Indo-Pacific Command is based, are the most advanced, the officials said. 

“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 Solomon Islands,” said an intelligence official from a U.S ally. 

The warning that Beijing is trying to further increase its influence in the Pacific came as President Joe Biden begins a visit to Asia intended to reassure allies of US commitment to regional security amid China’s push for influence. 

One U.S official said 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. 

There are serious concerns the pact with Kiribati would be similar to the one agreed with the Solomons, said one western official. 

Michael Foon, Kiribati’s foreign affairs secretary, denied his government was in “discussions on a security agreement with any partner”. 

But 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 was worrying locals. 

“We’re next in China’s plan to establish its military presence in strategic locations in our region,” she said.  

Meanwhile, Beijing has sealed a deal with Vanuatu on Friday to upgrade an international airport in Luganville, a key U.S military base during the second world war. 

A state department official said the U.S 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 under way to expand the places where they can operate in military or quasi-military ways,” said the state department official. “And that’s a concern.” 

Beijing has security deals with other countries in the region, including Fiji and Papua New Guinea. But diplomats and security officials said the pact with the Solomons is much more far-reaching and that it might have bigger ambitions regarding Kiribati. 

China’s foreign minister Wang Yi is expected to lead a large delegation to the islands next week.