War drums: Tensions rise as U.S. cautions Pacific Islands about China's growing presence in Kiribati

Kiribati island by is licensed under Britannica.com
The United States is warning Pacific Island nations to be careful about working with Chinese security forces as reports reveal Chinese police involvement in Kiribati, a remote island near Hawaii. Uniformed Chinese officers are helping with community policing and a crime database program, raising concerns.

Kiribati's strategic location and possession of a large exclusive economic zone have intensified competition between China and the United States in the Pacific. There are worries about China's plans to rebuild a U.S. military airstrip on Kiribati's Kanton Island.

The U.S. State Department is cautious, fearing collaboration with China could increase tensions. The U.S. wants to upgrade infrastructure on Kanton Island and open an embassy in Kiribati as a strategic move.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department responded, "We do not believe importing security forces from the PRC [People’s Republic of China] will help any Pacific Island country. Instead, doing so risks fueling regional and international tensions."

The official added that Washington does not condone China's "transnational repression efforts," including the establishment of police stations globally.

"We are concerned about the potential implications security agreements and security-related cyber cooperation with the PRC may have for any Pacific Island nation's autonomy," the spokesperson said.

Senator Schatz emphasized the need for the U.S. to strengthen partnerships in the Pacific Islands. Urgent economic assistance funding is needed for states like the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau.

China has not officially responded, but the acting police commissioner said China was invited to assist with policing in 2022. China's attempts for a region-wide security and trade deal were rejected in 2022, yet Chinese police are present in the Solomon Islands, drawing criticism.

Australia is worried about China's expanding security ambitions in the region. They're actively collaborating to address Kiribati's security needs, donating patrol boats. Papua New Guinea, a major Pacific Island nation, rejected Chinese assistance.

Kiribati's large exclusive economic zone and a Japanese satellite station make it strategically important. China's plan to reconstruct a U.S. military airstrip raises concerns, leading to U.S. countermeasures.

Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz issued a statement saying reporting of China's growing influence across Pacific Island nations, including Kiribati, underscored the need for the United States to continue strengthening its partnerships in the region.

He said these actions by the PRC show the need to "urgently" pass existing economic assistance funding for three other strategic Pacific Island states, the Marshall Islands. Micronesia and Palau, this economic assistance funding bill has been held up by budget battles in the U.S. Congress.

"To build enduring trust with the people of the Pacific Islands, we need to redouble our efforts to support economic development, help meet infrastructure needs, bolster public health capacity, and more," Schatz said.

China has not officially responded to reports of police involvement in Kiribati. The acting police commissioner clarifies there's no Chinese police station, adding ambiguity to the situation.

China's attempts to establish security and trade deals in the Pacific were rejected in 2022. Despite criticism, Chinese police are deployed in the Solomon Islands, showcasing China's persistence in expanding influence.

Australia's proactive measures highlight the interconnected security dynamics in the Pacific. They're donating patrol boats and supporting infrastructure upgrades to maintain stability.

The situation in Kiribati reflects a complex power struggle between the U.S. and China in the Pacific. As these major powers compete for influence, Pacific Island nations face challenges in maintaining autonomy and security. The evolving dynamics in Kiribati underline the broader issues Pacific Island nations confront amid competing global powers.

Meg Keen, Director of the Lowy Institute's Pacific Islands Program, recognizes China has security ambitions in the region. "Australia and the United States are concerned about that prospect, in Kiribati and around the region, and are taking measures to protect their position," she said.
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