TARAWA, Jun 23, 2020, The Guardian. Taneti Maamau was re-elected on Monday to a second term as Kiribati’s president just two months after losing his parliamentary majority over his surprise move to recognise China and cut official relations with Taiwan, The Guardian reported.
The flip in September last year, four days after an identical switch by Solomon Islands, left Taiwan with only 15 countries that recognise it as a separate country.
The presidential vote was 26,053 ballots for Maamau against 17,866 for his challenger, lawyer Banuera Berina, according to officials in the capital Tarawa, as cited by Teburoro Tito, the Kiribati ambassador to the US and UN in New York.
Berina had pledged to reverse the diplomatic move.
Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, said: “This is a blow for Taiwan and, by extension, to the US, Australia, and others who worry what greater Chinese influence in Kiribati might portend.”
“The experience of other Pacific states suggests that large inflows of Chinese investment and loans tends to weaken governance and increase corruption,” Poling said.
Natasha Kassam of the Lowy Institute in Sydney said: “China would have been highly embarrassed if Maamau were deposed over the decision to recognise Beijing, just months after his state visit to China and audience with President Xi Jinping himself.”
Kiribati’s population of 110,000 citizens is spread out over an area of the central Pacific more than 2000km wide, and the country controls an exclusive economic zone larger than India’s land mass. Analysts say its size and strategic location make it extremely attractive to the expansionist administration of Xi.
Among its 33 islands is Christmas, the world’s largest atoll, located just 2,000km south of Hawaii and 3,288km east of Kiribati’s capital, Tarawa.
The election was a much a competition of personalities as a referendum on China.
Kiribati sources said the campaign had focused mainly on whether Maamau’s administration would be strong enough to funnel China’s offers of aid in the hundreds of millions of dollars into projects that would benefit the country rather than the donor.
Berina, a top lawyer who had been Maamau’s rival for their Tobwaan Kiribati party’s nomination in the presidential election four years ago and then became the party chairman, quit the party and joined the opposition in November, six weeks after the switch.
Berina claimed in an interview with the Guardian that Maamau had lied to his own party members about the reasons for the switch – blaming it on Taiwan’s behaviour over a proposed state visit that was ultimately abandoned. Berina said he believed Maamau had already made the decision to switch to Beijing.
“We didn’t leave the party because we were upset with the switch to China,” Berina said, “but because a president who doesn’t tell the truth to members of his party may be a risk to Kiribati as we are resuming our diplomatic relations with China.”
Maamau has denied Berina’s claim, telling the Guardian he consulted widely with his party members before the switch.
Parliamentary elections in April saw Maamau’s majority of 31 turned into a minority of 22, against 23 for Berina’s opposition party, leading to speculation that Maamau may have lost popular trust and would lose the presidential poll.
Teburoro Tito, the UN ambassador and a former head of state who is regarded as the Tobwaan party’s elder statesman, attributed Maamau’s lopsided win to a failure of the opposition’s allegations that China was a risky partner that would take control of the country and its resources.
“I think they understand that Maamau is not only honourable and transparent, but also strong enough to resist whatever pressure China might bring to bear,” he said.
Maamau’s government, citing scientific research, has moved away from the position of his presidential predecessor Anote Tong, who campaigned globally on the risk of rising sea levels as an existential threat to Kiribati.
In contrast, Maamau has committed to undertake urgently needed adaptation measures to sea-level rise, notably in overcrowded Tarawa.
Maamau has also pledged to boost development, notably in tourism – and the obvious place to start is in Christmas, near Hawaii’s 10-million-visitors-a-year market, where port facilities to attract cruise ships could also be used to service Chinese vessels.
Dean of science at Simon Fraser University in Canada, coastal geomorphologist Paul Kench, who has published extensively on how sand islands react to sea-level changes, said Kiribati should channel China’s offer of unprecedented aid levels into projects to elevate the island through sand dredging, build new homes and buildings on stilts and elevate roads.
“This is a unique opportunity to get climate adaptation just right, and the lessons gained here could be applied to other sand island nations ranging from the Maldives to the Bahamas.”