Kiribati is dumping a 158,000-square-mile World Heritage marine reserve, the Pacific Islands Forum, and its friendship with Taiwan. Why? The archipelagic state is trading its sovereignty for Beijing’s fast cash.
The sovereignty of Kiribati, a nation of islands in the South Pacific between China and the United States, is being submerged not principally by the waves of global warming, as many fear, but by Beijing’s illiberal influence. Unlike the storms on a rising sea that build islands by successive layers of sand, Beijing is capturing Kiribati with waves of cash.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will not willingly return what it takes through purchase. So the citizens of Kiribati, and the rest of the world, must get much tougher, much more quickly, if we are to defend Kiribati’s democracy and sovereignty. What applies to Kiribati, the canary in a coal mine, will eventually apply to the capitals of Europe and North America.
This article uses the case of Kiribati to argue for what to this author’s knowledge is a philosophical first: support for an autocracy that seeks hegemony should void a country’s sovereignty. A similar approach should be taken to physical persons and corporations: support for hegemonic autocracy should be illegal and have criminal consequences.
Anyone who sells out democracy should go to prison, and any country that does the same will, one way or another, lose its sovereignty. Kiribati is an object lesson in this sad trend of contemporary international relations.
As preparation for breaking this new philosophical ground, consider these facts in the case of Kiribati.
The Case of Kiribati
On Nov. 11, exclusive reporting by 1News revealed documents that show the Kiribati government deregistering a World Heritage site that is a massive 158,000-square-mile marine reserve. The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) will now be exploited by not only illegal, but commercial, fishing.
China, which engages in massive amounts of illegal fishing globally, facilitated by fossil fuel subsidies of its fishing fleet, will likely benefit from not only the exploitation of the newly vulnerable and pristine fishing grounds, but from their military potential. China’s PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and Navy (PLAN) could in particular use Kiribati’s prime military basing because it is adjacent to U.S. waters, and strategically located midway between Australia and Hawaii.
According to documents obtained by 1News, Kiribati’s cabinet informed PIPA that it would be deregistered. That confidential communication came in late October, and was only revealed publicly when New Zealand’s 1News discovered it this month.
Alex Gray, former U.S. National Security Council chief of staff and an expert on the Pacific Islands, responded to the news by saying that “China is the world’s greatest ecological menace, from its devastating illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing around the world, to its consistent undermining of global norms that protect delicate ecosystems like Antarctica and the deep seabed. The U.S. and its partners must confront China’s attack on the ecology of the world’s most vulnerable places and not remain silent on this defining issue.”
As Gray previously noted in The Diplomat, Beijing’s influence in the Pacific Islands is not only ecological, but political. The regime is inclined “to exert leverage over these tiny islands,” he wrote.
According to the 1News report by Barbara Dreaver, “There’s deep concern that the move [to deregister the reserve] has been driven by China. PIPA is attractive to China not only for its fishing wealth but its strategically significant location near US military installations.”
Defense analyst Anna Powles at Massey University in New Zealand told 1News that “Kiribati has real strategic value to China if it could potentially develop some strategic infrastructure on Kanton Island which has commercial fishery usage but potential military usage as well.”
Kanton Island was previously a U.S. and British military base, just 1,600 miles southwest of Hawaii. The United States used the tiny island—then spelled Canton after an American whaling ship that wrecked on the atoll in 1854—as an emergency air base and anti-ballistic missile tracking station.
In Violating Kiribati’s Sovereignty, Beijing Breaks China’s Promise of 1948
The United States voluntarily relinquished its military base on Kiribati’s Kanton atoll due to American ideals of a world of independent sovereign democracies, found in part within the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The writing of that declaration was led by the United States and involved close participation from participants of France, Canada, nationalist China, and Lebanon. The formal drafting eventually enlarged to include Australia, Chile, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. Nationalist China and the Soviet Union supported the declaration, which recognized democracy as a human right, arguably as part of the bargain that welcomed these autocracies into leadership positions of the international community.
Now Russia and communist China are going back on their word and rejecting this foundational United Nations document, on which other U.N. principles such as territorial integrity and non-interference that they sometimes support are predicated.
Beijing continues to grab the territory of its neighbors in Asia against international principles such as territorial integrity and exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and it flagrantly violates the 1948 declaration and international law against genocide.
Kiribati Would Make a Useful Chinese Military Base
On and around Kanton atoll and the other Pacific Islands, Beijing manifests its disregard for sovereignty through illegal fishing, the attempted bribing of entire democracies with millions of dollars in cash, and the use of Chinese funding for an upgraded airstrip that could be used by the PLAAF and PLAN as a convenient jumping-off spot for Hawaii.
The Chinese could use the Kiribati islands as it does its artificial islands in the South China Sea: as bases for missiles, bombers, jet fighters, submarines, and aircraft carriers. Kiribati extends China’s military reach uncomfortably close to Honolulu, which hosts the U.S. military headquarters for all of Asia.
For a few million dollars, Kiribati is thus cracking the status quo of superpower relations that kept the peace in the Pacific Islands since the last world war. The country is being penny wise and more than pound foolish, especially in its disrespect for democracy and turn toward China during Beijing’s practice of genocide, military aggression against neighbors Taiwan, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia, and Beijing’s growing hegemonic ambitions.
Notably, Kiribati spurned a 23-year friendship with Taiwan in 2019 in favor of Beijing. In exchange, it was promised a $66 million grant.
Does Kiribati really want to choose the wrong side of this new cold war that could well get hot?
Beijing’s Carrots and Sticks at Work in Kiribati
In a recent Diplomat article, Gray noted that “China succeeded in prompting Kiribati to switch its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in a process that raised concerns about China’s undue interference in Kiribati’s political process.”
Countries that have supported Taiwan, like Palau, pay the price. Beijing uses its power over Chinese citizens to wield illegal fishing and tourism bans against countries that support Taiwan.
“Particularly vulnerable are Nauru, Tuvalu, and Kiribati, whose exceptionally small size and geographic isolation make them especially susceptible to outside coercion,” wrote Gray.
Nauru and Tuvalu still recognize Taiwan, but Gray wrote that “China is capable of marshaling enormous resources, in the form of both overt economic aid and covert influence, in order to secure its preferred outcomes in [these] small states with relatively opaque governing processes.”
Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. has called Beijing a “bully,” and rightly so. Palau’s population of 20,000 is less than two thousandths of a percent of China’s 1.4 billion. This gives China the economic power to offer bribes to elected leaders, as it has in Africa and at the United Nations.
“Stealing and offering bribes, that’s just got to stop, illegal fishing has to stop,” said Whipps after the Palauan police and U.S. Coast Guard stopped a Chinese vessel from illegal fishing in Palauan waters.
According to 1News, the Kiribati government admits that it is deregistering its World Heritage site for just $200 million annually in tuna fishing licenses. But it is unclear whether Kiribati will even get this, as the lost value of the marine reserve could outweigh the new licenses.
If so, that could indicate the attempted bribery of Kiribati leaders by Beijing. Some careful accounting should be done to check.
“To add to international concern, Kiribati has signalled its intention to leave the Pacific Islands Forum where leaders work together for the good of the region,” wrote Dreaver.
She quoted another New Zealand academic, Steven Ratuva of Canterbury University, as saying that the decision to leave the Pacific Forum “means China will have more and more foothold and the more isolated Kiribati becomes the more they play straight into China’s hands.”
Gray explained: “When the PRC [People’s Republic of China] succeeds in forcing changes in diplomatic recognition in small developing states from Taipei to Beijing, as it did in Kiribati and Solomon Islands in 2019, it brings with it economic and political coercion. The Pacific Islands have not been an exception, and the PRC’s diplomatic presence in Kiribati continues the pattern of using that presence to assert increased economic and diplomatic leverage over vulnerable states, to the benefit of Beijing’s regional agenda.”
The CCP Is Eroding the Sovereignty of States
Former Kiribati President Anote Tong told 1News that the cancellation of the marine reserve is “a huge blow for conservation but I think it’s a much bigger blow to our credibility as a nation.”
He’s right, and the implications are profound for not only Kiribati, but for the changing concept of sovereignty itself.
As Beijing seeks to achieve global hegemony, it seeks to break down the sovereignty of the world’s other 192 countries to the point of being a “sovereignty” in name only, according to Rush Doshi, author of “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order.” Beijing does this with carrots (grants or loans) or sticks (threats of invasion or denial of trade) to attempt coercion of countries into consistently following the CCP’s diktat.
The strategy worked to tame most Chinese citizens, and now the CCP is applying the strategy globally to the leaders of countries, elected or not.
When countries come under Beijing’s sway, they are therefore de facto surrendering their sovereignty to Beijing and thus become part of “Greater China,” despite few admitting as much. When they retain their sovereignty in name, but follow orders from Beijing, this is a fake form of sovereignty, but one that is increasingly accepted as real. The notion of sovereignty is being eroded with insufficient concern by the public.
Beijing’s Pressure on Sovereignty Is a Threat to Democracy and Forces Democratic Counterpressure
To avoid this future of fake sovereigns under the control of Beijing, the rest of the world will have to act fast against Beijing and those that Beijing controls. Soon, not only China, but Greater China, including satellite “countries” and “autonomous” territories such as Kiribati, Hong Kong, and surprisingly the Philippines, could be treated as the adversary by countries that want to protect the international system of sovereign states.
As seen during the world wars, and the Cold War, choosing sides is the nature of superpower conflict over regional and global types of hegemony. Given China’s greater economic strength relative to the former Soviet Union, the pressures during this current second cold war will be too great for most countries that want to remain neutral. They will be forced to choose sides, as they increasingly are. Diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and defense treaties with the United States, are currently the key public proofs of having chosen the side of democracy against dictatorship.
Beijing’s satellites, whose elites were captured typically through bribes and threats of one form or another, allow themselves to be driven by Beijing’s priorities, becoming part of Greater China. They thus lose their sovereignty and become adversaries to democracies and all other countries that value their sovereignty and the rule of law to be found in the international system.
The erosion of democracy globally, and the growth of Beijing’s hegemonic potential, is difficult for many to see because the loss of sovereignty to Beijing is gradual. But the effects are potentially catastrophic for the future of democracy everywhere.
The 17th-Century Sources of Sovereignty That Must Now Evolve
The more a democratic government is swayed by Beijing’s illiberal influence, the less democratic credibility it has, and the less power democracies have as a whole to protect the international system that dates to the 17th century Peace of Westphalia upon which the modern concept of sovereignty is based.
Democratic credibility is the core of sovereignty according to 17th-century philosophers like John Locke, whose political theories underpin the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
But without support for democracy, nations cannot really be considered sovereign and responsible members of the international system. An example is Vichy France, which was controlled by Nazi Germany. It was not considered a truly sovereign country and, therefore, the military invasion of France by democratic allies—including the United States and Britain—was considered legitimate.
The sovereign right of territorial integrity is limited to those countries that support the leadership of democracies and the gradual evolution of autocracies toward democracy, as evidenced by the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Any entity that allies itself with Beijing, which is a totalitarian and genocidal state, excludes itself from the responsible nations of the world and thus puts itself at risk of not only exploitation by Beijing, but of becoming part of Beijing’s belligerence and, therefore, part of the problem of its hegemonic ambitions. A state that is part of a totalitarian threat of hegemony voids its own sovereignty and loses its right to territorial integrity, as did Vichy France.
Democracies and autocracies alike, that ally with a totalitarian belligerent on its way to becoming hegemonic, are in violation of the spirit of the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are no longer supporters of democracy, and lose their sovereignty through the violation of international law. Therefore, even “democratic” supporters of autocratic hegemony should no longer be considered democracies, but rather self-interested collections of individuals under illiberal influence.
A criminal gang that votes is still a criminal gang. A country’s illegal support of a belligerent autocracy makes that country itself a belligerent for an illegal cause and, therefore, excludes itself from the rights and privileges of sovereignty.
A Peaceful Preservation of Sovereignty for Kiribati and the World
Let us return to the example of Kiribati for clues about how to resolve the problem of autocratic hegemony peacefully.
If Kiribati returns to the democratic fold, it can be protected from totalitarianism and its hegemony, as can other countries that have allowed themselves to be overly influenced by Beijing. By adhering to the principle of democratic leadership of the international system, both autocracies and democracies can protect the international system of 1948 that guaranteed their sovereignty and territorial integrity, predicated on their following principles of human rights and a gradual evolution toward democracy.
As Gray’s article explained, for example, the United States can protect the democratic sovereignty of the Pacific Islands by extending protection to them. This protection is not American hegemony, but a temporary solution to Beijing’s attempts to extend its control in ever-larger circles on the map. Neither is the principle exclusive to the United States. It applies to French or German leadership of European countries, especially in Eastern Europe, that are resisting Russia’s regional hegemonic ambitions.
In the Pacific Islands, the United States achieves the protection of sovereignty in part through closer economic and political relations called Compacts of Free Association (COFAs).
“As the leaders of countries with Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) with the United States, they can be confident in Washington’s legal guarantee of their sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the many economic and social benefits that accrue from such agreements,” wrote Gray. “In an era of Chinese economic pressure and aggressive influence campaigns, the Freely Associated States (as the COFA signatories are known) have significant protections unavailable to their Pacific Islands peers.”
COFAs provide a pacific solution to the Pacific problem. According to Gray, the United States should extend “versions of the COFA to the smallest states in the region.”
This is absolutely correct.
And, I would add, COFAs should be non-negotiable if the country is already operating under Beijing’s illiberal influence. The sovereignty of these countries, having been crushed by Beijing, requires economic and military protection. For all the rest that have not yet lost their sovereignty, they will be a form of free association.
“The success of the existing COFAs with the Freely Associated States in providing a bulwark against Chinese aggression offers a model that is appealing to the most vulnerable regional states,” Gray wrote in support of their sovereignty and free association. “In a post-colonial region that prides itself on hard-won sovereignty, the balance the COFAs strike between sovereignty and security has innate appeal.”
A Tough Stand Against Beijing’s Allies Is Ultimately Democratic
After World War II, the founders of the United Nations hoped to create a world of free and sovereign democracies that needed no protection from the United States or any other country. Unfortunately, Beijing is ruining that vision through undermining sovereign democracies on a global scale.
The world, and especially America and the European Union as the only democratic entities strong enough to defeat Beijing, is thereby forced into a choice it does not want to make. Either allow the CCP to continue the erosion of democracy globally, and the reorientation of vulnerable capital cities toward Beijing, or draw a line and force democracies that are losing their sovereignty to Beijing to reverse course. It is an unfortunately illiberal solution to an illiberal choice made by weak democracies.
Wars to protect democracy involve illiberalities on both sides. As Beijing forces supporters of the international system of sovereign states and democracy closer to war, some solutions will necessarily, and unfortunately, involve economic and military force.
While that could be considered undemocratic, so is the loss of sovereignty to Beijing. And the loss of sovereignty to Beijing is more permanent, as the United States—and, I would argue, the European Union—have proven over the years that they respect and encourage the sovereignty of diverse states and nations, including those that are peaceful yet autocratic.
Rather than occupy and control Germany and Japan after World War II, for example, the United States provided development assistance for their economies and facilitated their democratic elections, sovereignty, and full membership in the international system.
Rather than oppose Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, both of which are autocratic, the United States since the 1980s has sought to guarantee their sovereignty in exchange for at the very least staying neutral in superpower conflicts with the Soviet Union (in the past) and China (today).
The United States and European Union cannot guarantee such sovereignty to countries, including democracies, that side with autocracies that seek global hegemony. The United States tries to achieve peace with these countries and, as a democracy, never seeks war; but when forced by a conflict that devolves into one between superpowers in which one or more are autocracies that seek global hegemony, the United States has and will be forced into defending itself and the concept of democracy more generally by treating the allies of totalitarian governments as was Vichy France.
To effectively confront China, countries that value their independence must also confront China’s allies globally. If Kiribati or any other country falls under Beijing’s sway, either the United States and allies will begin to see them as having lost their sovereignty to Beijing, or they will be forced to resist Beijing’s tyranny with one hand tied behind their backs.
Allies of Beijing can therefore no longer be considered sovereign states. To do so would be to allow the gradual and permanent erosion of democracy and sovereign independence globally, and to allow the current international rule of law to devolve into chaos.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.