Pacific nations can’t afford to snub Chinese money as they struggle with the impacts of climate change but foreign police being shipped in should be a red line, a former Kiribati president says.

Uniformed Chinese officers in Kiribati have been aiding community policing, drawing a rebuke from the United States, which cautioned Pacific nations against using Chinese security forces.

Law enforcement should be left up to local officers, former president Anote Tong said.

“I do not understand the need for foreign presence in police,” he told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.

While Kiribati had used foreign police in the past, including after it became an independent nation, they were there to assist “but not as a resident presence in our country”.

But poorer and developing Pacific Island nations couldn’t afford to ignore China as Beijing and Washington tussled for influence in the region, Tong said.

“This has got to be understood …nobody’s attacking us, we’re not about to attack anybody,” he said.

“So that kind of strategic issue is not something that’s important to us, what is important is climate change.

“If you are not doing anything to help us solve that and if the Chinese were to come tomorrow and say we will rebuild your islands, what should we do? They’re making an offer that we would find very difficult to refuse.”

His comments came as the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Canberra for talks with his Australian counterpart Penny Wong on Wednesday.

Transparency over China’s agreements, including security and policing pacts, in the region has been a point of contention with Canberra.

“We agreed to … expand our dialogue on key areas of importance, such as the Pacific, climate and energy co-operation, and enhance understanding and transparency,” Senator Wong said after the meeting.

Kiribati is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Australia and America.

There have been concerns about a Chinese push to bolster a World War II-era military airstrip on the island of Kanton.

China has downplayed the concerns, saying upgrades would be used to enhance civilian travel between the nation’s islands.