Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is to visit Kiribati on Friday for four hours as part of a Pacific tour to strengthen security ties in the region.
It’s the first top level bilateral meeting between the two countries since Kiribati switched allegiance to China from Taiwan in 2019.
Concern is mounting over a potential security deal following the PRC’s recent controversial agreement with Solomon Islands which allows it to have military presence in the island nation if requested.
Speaking to 1News, Kiribati Opposition leader Tessie Eria Lambourne says she is “gravely concerned” about any potential security arrangement as she believes it will involve the militarisation of one of its atolls, Kanton Island, and Chinese control over the area.
“Our rich marine territory in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) will be under China’s control for sure,” she said.
The area is valuable for its geo-strategic location including proximity to United States military installations along with its rich fisheries resources.
Last year, 1News revealed how the Kiribati Government was ditching PIPA, a marine reserve and World Heritage site to open up to commercial fishing in a move believed to have been driven by Beijing.
China is also funding a feasibility study to upgrade the runway and causeway on Kanton Island which has raised alarm in the U.S and Australia.
Friday’s bilateral meeting which is expected to include discussions about the Kanton Island development was announced late Tuesday.
A Facebook post from President Taneti Maamau’s office says the high-level State visit is “an important milestone for Kiribati-Chinese relations, as it will strengthen and promote partnership and cooperation between our two countries”.
An exemption is being made for the delegation as Kiribati borders remain closed as a Covid-19 safety measure.
While the group will undergo PCR testing when they arrive at the airport, Lambourne says the visit demonstrates the influence the superpower has there.
“Since the lockdown there have been exemptions extended to Chinese nationals who have been coming in and going out of our country without restrictions while our seafarers and other nationals had to wait more than three years to be repatriated,” she said.
“Our democratic system, in fact our very sovereignty , is under attack and we need support to ensure our survival as a democratic nation”.
The Chinese delegation is expected to arrive in Solomon Islands tonight and meet with the Government on Thursday. The group will also be visiting Fiji on Sunday and Monday and Papua New Guinea next week.
Speaking to media from New York on Wednesday, Jacinda Ardern said it’s no surprise Yi is set to visit a number of Pacific countries.
Asked if it was a concern, Ardern said: “We’re very firm that yes of course we want collaboration in areas where we have shared concerns.
“Issues like climate mitigation and adaptation, we want quality investment and infrastructure in our region.
“We don’t want militarisation, we don’t want an escalation of tension, we want peace and stability so we will remain firm on those values,” Ardern said.