Kiribati president praises China’s culturally sensitive dealings with Pacific countries

Stephen Wright
Kiribati president praises China’s culturally sensitive dealings with Pacific countries Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) and Kiribati’s President Taneti Maamau shake hands during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Jan. 6, 2020.
Mark Schiefelbein/ pool via AFP

The president of Kiribati lauded China’s economic development and its culturally sensitive dealings with Pacific island countries in a recent interview, highlighting Beijing’s inroads with another of the region’s economically lagging nations.

President Taneti Maamau’s comments were published by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua on Sunday and state-supported hawkish newspaper Global Times on Monday. He is also Kiribati’s foreign minister.

China’s attitude towards Pacific island countries is “very culturally sensitive,” Maamau said, according to Xinhua. “That is the key to promoting cooperation, mutual trust and genuine partnership between China and the region.”

Kiribati, as well as the Solomon Islands, switched their diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019, allowing relations with Beijing to burgeon as part of China’s broader push for influence in the Pacific.

Since then, Beijing’s assistance has been responsive to the Pacific country’s development needs, Maamau said, “particularly infrastructure building and improving the livelihood of the Kiribati people.”

Kiribati, home to some 120,000 people, is among the poorest countries in the Pacific. Comprising about three dozen low-lying atolls, it is also threatened by coastal erosion and higher sea levels.

In the interview, Maamau said high living standards in China were an “eye-opener” to him when he visited the country in 2020.

“Amazement” is the right word to describe China’s development achievements in the last ten years, he said, according to Global Times. “The enduring strength and vitality of the Chinese people have resulted in China’s great accomplishments as a nation,” he was quoted as saying.

Global Times said Maamau also sent congratulatory notes to Chinese President Xi Jinping and for the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which convened in Beijing on Oct. 16 for a week.

Xi, 69, is widely expected to be endorsed by congress delegates for an unprecedented third five-year term in office, breaking recent party norms and becoming China’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong, according to Radio Free Asia, an online news affiliate of BenarNews.

Over the past two decades, China has become an important and welcome source of loans, infrastructure and aid for Pacific island countries, which struggle to get finance and are frequently battered by natural disasters. In the same period, the United States has paid less attention to the region, but recently promised more aid and new embassies.

Kiribati, an atoll nation in the North Pacific with an exclusive economic zone about one-third of the size of the United States, said in July it would leave the Pacific Islands Forum, a key regional organization.

Earlier this year, China attempted to bypass the forum by forging its own regional agreement with 10 Pacific island nations but was rebuffed.

Maamau didn’t attend the U.S.-Pacific Island nations summit in Washington last month, and nor was Kiribati a signatory to President Joe Biden’s declaration of partnership with Pacific nations.

The Solomon Islands and China signed a secret security pact in April, amplifying U.S. concern about increased Chinese clout in the Pacific.

Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has welcomed China’s assistance, which reduces his country’s traditional reliance on U.S. ally Australia.

Neither China nor the Solomon Islands have released the text of their security agreement, but Sogavare has said he won’t allow foreign military bases.

Under a separate agreement, China has provided training to more than 300 Solomon Islands police officers so far this year, about a fifth of the Pacific country’s police force, according to a joint statement on Monday from the Solomon Islands and Chinese police.

The training for police in the capital Honiara and outer islands has included crowd control, close personal protection, criminal investigations, and traffic management, according to the joint statement.

Earlier this month, a contingent of 32 Solomon Islands police traveled to China for a month’s instruction in policing techniques.


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