Kiribati President says AUKUS nuclear submarine deal puts Pacific at risk


The United Kingdom is a long way from the Pacific. But London is front and centre of moves to secure this region against the perceived China threat while Pacific Islands themselves complain they are sidelined.

The AUKUS alliance has come as an unwelcome surprise to at least one Pacific leader.

Kiribati President Taneti Maamau said he was not consulted.

He has told ABC TV’s China Tonight he feels disrespected. He has lodged a complaint but said he has had no reply.

This comes after France has withdrawn its ambassador, furious at having its $90 billion (US$65 billion) submarine contract abruptly cancelled.

France is a Pacific power with more than a million citizens in the region where it controls territory.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been at pains to describe AUKUS — Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States — as key to providing stability and peace to an increasingly volatile region.

To AUKUS add the Quad — Australia, the U.S, India and Japan — a collection of democracies formed in response to China’s rising power.

Maamau wonders why this cooperation does not extend to countries like his. He is especially concerned about Australia developing nuclear-powered submarines.

He said it puts the region at risk and raises some troubling memories. The people of Kiribati recall when the UK and U.S tested nuclear weapons there.

Then the islands were part of colonial Britain and between 1957 and 1962 more than 30 nuclear tests were carried out.

“Our people were victims of nuclear testing … we still have trauma … with that in mind, with anything to do with nuclear, we thought it would be a courtesy to raise it, to discuss it with your neighbours,” he said.

Maamau now fears an accident that could create a nuclear scare. On top of that is the rising risk of broader conflict.

“The region is becoming a very crowded place,” Maamau said what is important, he said, is to “build relationships of mutual trust”.

Trust, he said, is missing right now.

“As small island states, we thought we were part of the solution … we are in the Pacific family. We should be consulted.”

Developed countries, he said, have the power. He does not.

Kiribati is especially vulnerable to the impact of climate change.

Maamau said he is looking to Australia to show leadership as it debates a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050.

“We ask Australia as a neighbour to do something big,” he said.

The Pacific is a new battleground as Beijing seeks to win friends and influence states.

It is working. Kiribati has switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the China mainland.

Maamau said he felt betrayed by Taiwan, which withheld approval for funding. China has stepped in.

There are lessons here for Australia. It has long been the biggest player in the Pacific Islands, the highest aid donor, but it is being challenged by China.

Beijing tells nations like Kiribati it is listening.

Maamau feels as if Canberra doesn’t care.