U.S. cautions Pacific nations after Kiribati gets Chinese police

The United States on Feb 26 cautioned Pacific Island nations against receiving assistance from Chinese security forces after Reuters reported that Chinese police are working in the remote atoll nation of Kiribati.

Kiribati’s Acting Police Commissioner, Eeri Aritiera told Reuters last week that uniformed Chinese officers are working with local police in community policing and on a crime database programme.

Kiribati is a nation of 115,000 people whose closest island is 2,160km south of Honolulu, and the news comes as Beijing renews a push to expand security ties in the Pacific Islands in an intensifying rivalry with the US.

“We do not believe importing security forces from the PRC will help any Pacific Island country. Instead, doing so risks fuelling regional and international tensions,” a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said when asked to comment on the Reuters report, using the abbreviation of the People’s Republic of China.

The official added that Washington does not tolerate China’s “transnational repression efforts”, including its attempts to establish police stations around the world.

“We are concerned about the potential implications that security agreements and security-related cyber cooperation with the PRC may have for any Pacific Island nation’s autonomy,” the spokesperson said. Kiribati is considered strategic not only given its relative proximity to Hawaii, but also because it has one of the world’s biggest exclusive economic zones, covering more than 3.5 million sq km of the Pacific Ocean.

It hosts a Japanese satellite tracking station and China has announced plans to rebuild a World War II U.S. military airstrip on Kiribati’s Kanton Island, prompting concern from Washington.

The U.S. countered with a pledge in October to upgrade the wharf on Kanton, a former U.S. military base, and said it wants to open an embassy in Kiribati. China has not responded to a Reuters request for comment on the role of its police, but in a social media post in January, its embassy named the head of the “Chinese police station in Kiribati”.

Aritiera said Kiribati requested China’s policing assistance in 2022 but there was no Chinese police station. Up to a dozen uniformed Chinese police arrived in 2023 on a six-month rotation.

A Chinese embassy source confirmed that the uniformed officers are working in Kiribati but also said China has not established a police station.

China’s efforts to strike a regionwide security and trade deal in the region, where it is a major infrastructure lender, were rejected by the Pacific Islands Forum in 2022.

However, Chinese police have been deployed in the Solomon Islands since 2022 after a secret security pact criticised by Washington and Canberra as undermining regional stability.

Papua New Guinea, the biggest Pacific Island nation, said in February it will not accept a Chinese offer of police assistance and surveillance technology after news that it was negotiating a policing deal with China prompted criticism from the U.S. and Australia.