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Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Debt-trap ! .. .. Chinese ambassador walk in the eye of storm !!


The picture from Kiribati showing new Chinese Ambassador Tang Songgen welcomed off a plane has taken the World by storm.  There have been tweets stating - Kiribati national anthem is "Teirake Kaini Kiribati" - “Stand up, Kiribati”

China’s president Xi Jinping has praised Kiribati for being “on the right side of history” after the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding in China on Monday. The agreement, which signs the Pacific nation up to China’s belt and road initiative, comes after Kiribati severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established them with China in September last year.

Kiribati   is an independent country in the central Pacific Ocean.  A very small place with population of around 1.10 lakhs, more than half of whom live on Tarawa atoll. The state comprises 32 atolls and one raised coral island, Banaba.  Their spread straddles the equator and the 180th meridian, although the International Date Line goes round Kiribati and swings far to the east, almost reaching the 150° W meridian.  Kiribati gained its independence from the United Kingdom, becoming a sovereign state in 1979. The capital, South Tarawa, now the most populated area, consists of a number of islets, connected by a series of causeways.  

The hue and cry is because the Chinese diplomat was pictured walking on the back of the students lying down – and was it highlighting Pacific power struggle was the Q ! Kiribati locals  however were to say that the practice is a customary welcome for dignitaries and the photo of the Chinese ambassador has been taken out of context.  The episode casts a fresh spotlight on Beijing’s ties with the Pacific nation, which seeks funding for an ambitious and expensive island-raising project.

In January, Kiribati's President Taneti Maamau and Chinese President Xi Jinping met  at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.  Earlier this week, US and Australian officials were quick to express incredulity and outrage over this  image shared on social media showing the Chinese ambassador to Kiribati walking across the backs of locals lying face down on the ground after he arrived on Marakei Island.  Commander Constantine Panayiotou, the US defence attaché to five Pacific Islands including Kiribati, took to Twitter to say: “I simply cannot imagine any scenario in which walking on the backs of children is acceptable behaviour by an ambassador of any country (or any adult for that matter!)”

However, people of  Kiribati said the practice is customary and that the image featuring China’s ambassador Tang Songgen had been taken out of context. “The Marakei people can welcome dignitaries any way they like, it’s well known they follow many of the customs of their land,” said an Associate Professor of Kribati origin. “Everyone should be less hysterical about this and more respectful towards the diversity of Pacific ways, islands should have cultural self-determination … Marakei was probably trying something extra customary to show honour and hospitality.”

The episode has shown how closely Beijing’s growing ties with Pacific island nations are being scrutinised as the US and China are locked in a bitter competition for influence in the region – comprising 22 states and territories and the world’s largest expanse of ocean encompassing critical sea and air lines of communication. While many Pacific nations have long aligned themselves with the US and its allies, closer ties with China have been forged in recent years amid a push by Beijing to increase its diplomatic and financial clout. Kiribati, the site of a mothballed Chinese space tracking station, switched allegiance from Taiwan to China last year.

Its current president is the pro-China Taneti Maamau, who was recently re-elected after an aggressive campaign pitting him against an opposition candidate leaning towards Taiwan. In the weeks leading up to the presidential vote in June, Kiribati received more than US$4.2 million from Beijing for “livelihood projects”, according to a Kiribati government statement. The US military has raised concerns that Kiribati might allow China to build facilities for both military and civilian use on its largest island, which is just 2,000km (1,200 miles) south of Hawaii – home to the US Pacific Command. Maamau has insisted in interviews he will safeguard the country’s independence and has no plans to allow China to build military bases in the country.

Fuelling talk of China trying to increase its influence in Kiribati is an ambitious and expensive plan to battle rising sea levels in a country that is no more than two metres above sea level at its highest point. Former leader Anote Tong pursued an idea of “migration with dignity” – buying land in nearby Fiji and starting the process of relocating people. But Mamaau, who first came to power in 2016, rejected the migration strategy and instead announced that his government’s intention was to “put aside the misleading and pessimistic scenario of a sinking, deserted nation” by pursuing regional support to raise the islands above rising sea levels.

In 2017, while unveiling Kiribati’s “20-year vision” to world leaders at the 23rd annual Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Maamau showcased a video pitch to wealthy investors to “transform Kiribati into the Dubai or Singapore of the Pacific” by building 5-star eco-resorts that will enable tourists to access “world-class diving, fishing and surfing experiences”.

“Kiribati and the US also have a Treaty of Friendship and Territorial Sovereignty which states that any military use by third parties of the islands shall be subject to consultation between Kiribati and the US.”

After Covid impact, there is economic devastation that has  raised concerns that Kiribati could be subjected to the kind of “debt-trap diplomacy” China has been accused of using elsewhere. A report for the Lowy Institute published last October found that Beijing was not deliberately engaging in such practices, but that “the sheer scale of Chinese lending” to Pacific states did “pose clear risks” for smaller nations of being overwhelmed by debt. “Left unchecked, storm damages will be prevalent, land resources on the urban islands will be reduced and infrastructure will be in a parlous condition. This would undoubtedly impact the health and safety of communities and potable water resources will be diminished.”

Intriguing ! 

With regards – S. Sampathkumar


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