Exclusive-Chinese police work in Kiribati, Hawaii’s Pacific neighbour

By Thomson Reuters Feb 22, 2024 | 9:17 PM

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Chinese police are working in the remote atoll nation of Kiribati, a Pacific Ocean neighbour of Hawaii, with uniformed officers involved in community policing and a crime database program, Kiribati officials told Reuters.

Kiribati has not publicly announced the policing deal with China, which comes as Beijing renews a push to expand security ties in the Pacific Islands in an intensifying rivalry with the United States.

Kiribati, a nation of 115,000 residents, is considered strategic despite being small, as it is relatively close to Hawaii and controls one of the biggest exclusive economic zones in the world, covering more than 3.5 million square kilometres (1.35 million square miles) of the Pacific. It hosts a Japanese satellite tracking station.

Kiribati’s acting police commissioner Eeri Aritiera told Reuters the Chinese police on the island work with local police, but there was no Chinese police station in Kiribati.

“The Chinese police delegation team work with the Kiribati Police Service – to assist on Community Policing program and Martial Arts (Tai Chi) Kung Fu, and IT department assisting our crime database program,” he said in an email.

China’s embassy in Kiribati did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on the role of its police. In a January social media post the embassy named the leader of “the Chinese police station in Kiribati”.

Aritiera, who attended a December meeting between China’s public security minister Wang Xiaohong and several Pacific Islands police officials in Beijing, said Kiribati had requested China’s policing assistance in 2022.

Up to a dozen uniformed Chinese police arrived last year on a six month rotation.

“They only provide the service that the Kiribati Police Service needs or request,” Aritiera said.

The Kiribati president’s office did not respond to a request for comment.


China’s efforts to strike a region-wide security and trade deal in the region, where it is a major infrastructure lender, were rejected by the Pacific Islands Forum in 2022.

However, Chinese police have deployed in the Solomon Islands since 2022, after the two nations signed a secret security pact criticised by Washington and Canberra as undermining regional stability.

Australian National University’s Pacific expert Graeme Smith said China was seeking to extend its reach over the Chinese diaspora, and police were “very useful eyes and ears” abroad.

“It is about extraterritorial control,” he said. Chinese police would also “have eyes on Kiribati’s domestic politics and its diplomatic partners”.

Aritiera said the Chinese police were not involved in security for Chinese citizens on the island, and a Chinese embassy source denied there was a Chinese police station.

China’s ambassador to Australia said last month that China had a strategy to form policing ties with Pacific Island countries to help maintain social order and this should not cause Australia anxiety.

Kiribati switched ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, with President Taneti Maamau encouraging Chinese investment in infrastructure. It will hold a national election this year.

China built a large embassy on the main island and sent agricultural and medical teams. It also announced plans to rebuild a World War Two U.S. military airstrip on Kiribati’s Kanton Island, prompting concern in Washington. The airstrip has not been built.

At its closest point, Kiribati’s Kiritimati island is 2,160 km (1,340 miles) south of Honolulu.

The United States countered with a pledge in October to upgrade the wharf on Kanton island, a former U.S. military base, and said it wants to open an embassy in Kiribati.

Director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program, Meg Keen, said China had security ambitions in the region.

“Australia and the United States are concerned about that prospect, in Kiribati and around the region, and are taking measures to protect their position,” she said.

Papua New Guinea, the biggest Pacific Island nation, said this month it would not accept a Chinese offer of police assistance and surveillance technology, after news it was negotiating a policing deal with China prompted criticism from traditional security partners, the United States and Australia.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Sonali Paul)