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 go on to recognise China and cut official relations with Taiwan.
The flip in September this past year, four days after the same 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, based on officials in the capital Tarawa, as cited by Teburoro Tito, the Kiribati ambassador to the usa 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 a lot more than 2000km wide, and the united states controls an unique economic zone larger than India’s land mass. Analysts say its size and strategic location ensure it is extremely popular with 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 could be strong enough to funnel China’s offers of aid in the hundreds of millions of dollars in to projects that will benefit the united states 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 became the party chairman, quit the party and joined the opposition in November, six weeks following the switch.
Berina claimed in an interview with the Guardian that Maamau had lied to their own party members about the reasons for the switch – blaming it on Taiwan’s behaviour over a proposed state visit that was eventually abandoned. Berina said that he believed Maamau had already made the decision to change 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 that he consulted widely with his party members prior to 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, ultimately causing speculation that Maamau could have lost popular trust and would lose the presidential poll.
Teburoro Tito, the UN ambassador and a former head of state who’s regarded as the Tobwaan party’s elder statesman, attributed Maamau’s lopsided win to a deep failing of the opposition’s allegations that China was a risky partner that would manage the country and its own 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,” that he said.
Maamau’s government, citing scientific research, has moved far from the position of his presidential predecessor Anote Tong, who campaigned globally on the danger 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, significantly in overcrowded Tarawa.
Maamau in addition has pledged to improve development, significantly in tourism – and the obvious starting point is in Christmas, near Hawaii’s 10-million-visitors-a-year market, where port facilities to attract cruise ships is also used to service Chinese vessels.
Coastal geomorphologist Paul Kench, dean of science at Simon Fraser University in Canada and who has published extensively on how sand islands respond 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.”