US cautions after Hawaii neighbor Kiribati gets Chinese police

By Thomson Reuters Feb 26, 2024 | 7:19 PM

By David Brunnstrom and Kirsty Needham

WASHINGTON/SYDNEY (Reuters) – The United States on Monday cautioned Pacific Islands nations against assistance from Chinese security forces after Reuters reported that Chinese police are working in the remote atoll nation of Kiribati, a neighbor of Hawaii.

Kiribati’s acting police commissioner Eeri Aritiera told Reuters last week uniformed Chinese officers were working with police in community policing and a crime database program.

Kiribati is a nation of 115,000 people whose closest island is 2,160 km (1,340 miles) south of Honolulu, and the news comes as Beijing renews a push to expand security ties in the Pacific Islands in an intensifying rivalry with the United States.

Asked to comment on the Reuters report, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department responded using the abbreviation of the People’s Republic of China: “We do not believe importing security forces from the PRC will help any Pacific Island country.  Instead, doing so risks fueling regional and international tensions.”

The official added that Washington did not tolerate China’s “transnational repression efforts,” including its attempts to establish police stations around the world.

“We are concerned about the potential implications security agreements and security-related cyber cooperation with the PRC may have for any Pacific Island nation’s autonomy,” the spokesperson said.

Kiribati is considered strategic not only given its relatively proximity to Hawaii, but because it has one of world’s biggest exclusive economic zones, covering more than 3.5 million square km (1.35 million square miles) of the Pacific.

It hosts a Japanese satellite tracking station and China has announced plans to rebuild a World War Two U.S. military airstrip on Kiribati’s Kanton Island, prompting U.S. concern.

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.

China has not responded to a Reuters request for comment on the role of its police but in a January social media post its embassy named the head of the “Chinese police station in Kiribati.”

Kiribati’s acting police commissioner Aritiera said Kiribati had requested China’s policing assistance in 2022 but there was no Chinese police station. Up to a dozen uniformed Chinese police arrived last year on a six-month rotation.

A Chinese embassy source confirmed the uniformed officers were working in Kiribati but also said China had not established a police station.

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 a secret security pact criticized by Washington and Canberra as undermining regional stability.

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 the United States and Australia.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Kirsty Needham; Editing by Stephen Coates)