Australian officials are being given the cold shoulder in Kiribati amid concerns the atoll nation’s president is being courted by China.

Visa applications have dragged on or been denied while work on a treaty with Kiribati – which should have been finalised a year ago – was indefinitely put on ice, a senior foreign affairs department official confirmed to AAP.

While Australia is not the only country being shut out of the president’s office, there are concerns a strained relationship leaves a vacuum for China.

Australian High Commissioner Karen Bray – who was appointed in April 2023 – was left in limbo after her paperwork was delayed in the past few months, the senior official confirmed.

Bray referred an inquiry from AAP back to the department, which does not comment on individual visas.

The limited processing capacity within Kiribati’s small public service and issues with the visa application added to the hold-up, the source said.

The issue has since been resolved.

An Australian Navy officer who helped oversee the operations of a Guardian patrol boat alongside the Kiribati police force – the nation does not have a military – was also deported and banned for two years after handing in paperwork late.

A second vessel is set to arrive as early as July and a new person will be shipped out to Kiribati to help local forces.

President Taneti Maamau’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

While officials have pointed to technicalities over the visas being used as cover, it has also been characterised as a broader indifference to Australia and traditional partners.

A delegation from the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme – described by the department as “the flagship of Australia’s support towards a stronger and more independent media sector in the Pacific” – was also unable to get in, two people with knowledge of the situation told AAP.

Delivery partner ABC was contacted for comment.

The visit has been postponed until September, one source said, which would put it after the island’s general election.

A final text for a new comprehensive bilateral strategic partnership agreement was supposed to have been agreed to by July 2023 under a memorandum of understanding signed earlier that year.

But discussions have been shelved at Kiribati’s behest, with the president wanting to wait until a new government is elected.

“Australia will exercise patience and continue to demonstrate we remain a reliable and valuable partner,” Pacific Minister Pat Conroy’s spokesman said.

The memorandum, which has not been made public but has been seen by AAP, included a section about Australia working in partnership with Kiribati on border and policing.

It also involved a commitment to expand the police barracks and support for the local service, including training.

A design for the police barracks has been finalised with work expected to commence later this year and “expanded police training is being implemented under the Pacific police development program”, the department confirmed.

However, uniformed Chinese police officers have been involved in community policing and training since at least early 2024, despite Conroy’s warning there was no role for China to play in policing throughout the region.

Australian David Lambourne, who lived in Kiribati for almost three decades and served on the High Court in Tarawa, was stood down and eventually deported from the nation after he scored a legal win against the president.

During the drawn-out legal process, in which judges who ruled in his favour were also stood down, he was asked to leave an event hosted by the president to farewell the then outgoing Australian high commissioner David Yardley.

Australia has raised concerns about the rule of law with Kiribati, department officials previously told a parliamentary hearing.

Australian officials have been careful not to draw attention to their meetings with his wife, Opposition Leader Tessie Lambourne.

Academics have also been denied entry in a move one posited was to avoid media scrutiny.

High-level diplomatic visits have been paused ahead of the election at Kiribati’s behest but Australia is making progress on some of its commitments outlined in the memorandum.

Australian visas being dragged or not extended was worrying as it indicated China might have influenced the Kiribati government, Australia Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Malcolm Davis said.

It highlighted China’s greater objective to push Australia and the United States out of the region, Dr Davis said.

“Clearly, their agenda is to insinuate into the government there so they have real influence and control,” he said.

Under Maamau, Kiribati shifted its diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing in 2019 as the Chinese Communist Party pushed for recognition as China’s sole government to alienate Taiwan.

While China was not driving the breakdown of the rule of law, the diplomatic switch hung over the Maamau government with Lambourne being a former ambassador to Taiwan, an Australian legal expert said on the condition of anonymity to speak openly about the case.

The deportation of Lambourne was an attempt to undermine the opposition leader, the expert said.

Lambourne accused China of being behind Maamau’s withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum in July 2022.

It came just months after its foreign minister visited Kiribati as Beijing sought to secure a security pact with 10 Pacific nations, which was rejected by the region.

It has since rejoined the regional body after a diplomatic push from Fiji’s new prime minister in January 2023.

Kiribati also benefited from a large cash splash after switching diplomatic allegiances, said Riley Duke, the co-author of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific aid map.

The analyst, who maps aid and development throughout the Pacific, pointed to China’s cash splash once diplomatic ties switched from Taiwan to Beijing coming up against Australia’s usual $30 million (US$20 million) to $45 million (US$30 million) of aid each year.

The centrepiece of China’s aid after the switch, a $60 million (US$40.41 million) support package that included a commercial aircraft Taiwan had refused to fund, accounted for some 20 per cent of the small nation’s GDP, he noted.

Beijing now rivals Australia for the atoll nation’s largest donor, which was largely uncontested in the past, he said.

The strategically located nation is situated between Australia and America and is close to Hawaii, where the U.S Indo-Pacific Command is headquartered.

Dr Davis raised concerns about the increasing use of grey zone tactics by China, describing it as “an iron fist in a velvet glove”.

This could come in the form of surveillance drones or coast guard vessels that used to belong to the Chinese navy to help Kiribati monitor its waters but double as a de facto military presence, he said.