China is intensifying its drive for influence in the Pacific by negotiating security deals with two additional island nations following a pact with the Solomon Islands, according to officials in the US and allied countries.
Beijing’s talks with Kiribati, a Pacific island nation 3,000km from Hawaii where US Indo-Pacific Command is based, are the most advanced, officials said.
“They are in talks with Kiribati and at least one more Pacific island country over an agreement that would cover much of the same ground as that with Solomon Islands,” said an intelligence official from a US ally.
The warning that Beijing is trying to further increase its clout in the Pacific came as President Joe Biden begins a visit to Asia intended to reassure allies of US commitment to regional security amid China’s push for influence.
The negotiations with Kiribati follow the deal Beijing signed with the Solomon Islands, which some experts believe will allow China to build a naval base in the country located north-east of Australia.
According to a leak of a draft deal from March, the pact with the Solomons could allow China to send police and even military forces to the islands, a development that shocked the US and it allies in the Indo-Pacific from Australia and New Zealand to Japan.
One US official said China had set its sights on Kiribati for some time. “They’ve had on-and-off discussions on this, not just for months but for years,” said the official, who added that Beijing was trying to establish “strategic perches” on Pacific island nations.
There are serious concerns the pact with Kiribati would be similar to the one agreed with the Solomons, said one western official.
Michael Foon, Kiribati’s foreign affairs secretary, denied his government was in “discussions on a security agreement with any partner”.
But Tessie Eria Lambourne, leader of the opposition in Kiribati, said she was not aware of the talks but the country’s rapidly changing relationship with China was worrying locals.
“We’re next in China’s plan to establish its military presence in strategic locations in our region,” she said.
The Solomons deal helped make geopolitical tensions with China a central issue in Saturday’s election in Australia. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi is expected to lead a large delegation to the islands next week.
In another sign Beijing is stepping up its push in the region, it sealed a deal with Vanuatu on Friday to upgrade an international airport in Luganville, a key US military base during World War II.
A state department official said the US took concerns about security deals, including with Kiribati, “very seriously”. He said there were fears China was also negotiating with Tonga and Vanuatu.
“The Chinese seem to be having a global effort under way to expand the places where they can operate in military or quasi-military ways,” said the state department official. “And that’s a concern.”
Beijing has security deals with other countries in the region, including Fiji and Papua New Guinea. But diplomats and security officials said the pact with the Solomons is much more far-reaching and that it might have bigger ambitions regarding Kiribati.
China operated a space tracking station in Kiribati until 2003, when Beijing broke off relations with the islands after they established diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Since Kiribati switched its diplomatic allegiance back from Taipei to Beijing in 2019, diplomats have been looking for signs the tracking station could be restarted. Experts say the vast improvement in China’s military capabilities over the past two decades would make a Chinese air force or navy foothold relatively close to Hawaii even more significant today.
China is also working with Kiribati to upgrade an airstrip on the archipelago’s Kanton Island.
Tess Newton Cain, a Pacific expert with Griffith University in Australia, said the Solomon Islands deal and the strengthening of ties with Kiribati reflected “high energy” in a new phase of Chinese engagement.
“Those relationships are very new, and they’ve progressed quite quickly. . . That’s quite different from what we’re seeing elsewhere in the region, where the relationships are maybe a bit more mature, ”she said.
China’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Additional reporting by Nic Fildes in Sydney