SYDNEY (Reuters) – The leader of small but strategically located Kiribati has won a closely watched presidential run-off after campaigning on a pro-China platform, in a set back to Taiwan’s hopes to re-establish ties with a country that ditched it for Beijing last year.
The result, confirmed to Reuters by the island nation’s High Court, came after a fierce campaign that pitted the pro-Beijing leader against ally-turned-rival Banuera Berina, who is sympathetic to Taiwan.
China has taken an increasingly assertive role in the Pacific, to concern in Washington and Canberra which tend to view the region as their backyard.
Taneti Maamau secured another four-year term with 26,053 votes compared with his rival’s 17,866, results showed, amid high voter turnout for the strategically located central Pacific nation. Maamau won the most votes in 16 of the 23 island constituencies.
Opposition spokesman Rimon Rimon told Reuters by phone from Kiribati that he expected the government to start approaching opposition lawmakers to form a majority in parliament after loyalties were evenly split going into the vote.
Maamau’s office did not immediately respond to Reuters’ questions.
The result helps lock in the new diplomatic relationship between Tarawa and Beijing, ending any immediate bid by Taiwan to reclaim a diplomatic ally in the Pacific after it was muscled out of its alliances with Kiribati and Solomon Islands last year.
China claims democratic Taiwan as its territory with no right to state-to-state ties.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it would keep paying close attention to developments in Kiribati and continue to cooperate with like-minded countries to work for “security, stability, freedom, openness and democratic governance in the Pacific region”.
Taiwan now has formal diplomatic ties with just 15 countries worldwide, four of which are in the Pacific – Marshall Islands, Nauru, Tuvalu and Palau.
Former president Anote Tong told Reuters that the Kiribati government would now need to deliver on its campaign promises.
“The people have been persuaded to back the government based on the lavish promises made during the campaign,” Tong said by phone. “The next challenge will be to deliver on those promises, which will inflate the budget.”
Tong, who retired from politics in 2016, oversaw a shift in Kiribati’s ties from China to Taiwan during his first term in 2003.
Kiribati has a small land mass yet controls large swathes of ocean through its string of coral islands. It is also home to a Chinese space-tracking station mothballed since 2003, though its current status is unclear.
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Christopher Cushing)