The Kiribati political party that switched recognition from Taiwan to China last year lost its majority in elections last week.
China’s diplomatic ambitions in the Pacific suffered a setback on Wednesday when the party that switched recognition from Taiwan to China last year lost its majority in parliament over its handling of the move.
In the second round of parliamentary elections, the governing party and allies won 22 seats out of 45, dealing a blow to President Taneti Maamau, who previously enjoyed a comfortable majority of 31.
The rest of the seats were won by members or allies of two other parties – one of which has pledged to switch back to Taiwan, and another made up of MPs who left the governing party to create a new opposition party last fall over Maamau’s handling of the switch.
Kiribati, a country of 110,000 people in the central Pacific, severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan and established foreign relations with China in September, just a week after Solomon Islands announced it was breaking away from Taiwan.
Self-ruled Taiwan has lost seven allies since 2016 when president Tsai Ing-wen was elected.
The move came as China has increased its focus on the Pacific and sought to peel off Taiwan’s allies in the region.
Kiribati is thought to be of interest partly due to its location – some islands are just 700km from US military installations – and also due to Christmas Island, the world’s biggest atoll with a land mass of nearly 400 square kilometres.
It lies just 2150 km from Honolulu, home of the US Pacific Command and is far to the east of existing port facilities available to the Chinese navy.
The lightly populated island already has a giant deepwater pier and a spare runway, and its lagoon could easily be turned into a port, experts say.
“The Chinese could design a port project as being intended for cruise ships, and incrementally turn it into a dual-use facility that could service Chinese warships,” said Patrick Buchan, who tracks China at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
James Fanell, a former director of intelligence of the Pacific Fleet, agreed. “It’s reasonable to think they will be helping renovate port facilities and airfields in order to help the country develop,” he said.
“But having Chinese ships pull in at the big pier would be clearly threatening to Honolulu, no question.”