Earlier this week, US and Australian officials were quick to express incredulity and outrage over an image shared on social media showing the Chinese ambassador to Kiribati walking across the backs of locals lying face down on the ground after he arrived on Marakei Island. Commander Constantine Panayiotou, the US defence attaché to five Pacific Islands including Kiribati, took to Twitter to say: “I simply cannot imagine any scenario in which walking on the backs of children is acceptable behaviour by an ambassador of any country (or any adult for that matter!)” I simply cannot imagine any scenario in which walking on the backs of children is acceptable behavior by an ambassador of any country (or any adult for that matter!) Yet here we are thanks to #China ’s ambassador to Kiribati. https://t.co/HcJqfbaKzg — Constantine Panayiotou (@CP_Suva) August 16, 2020 But many in Kiribati said the practice is customary and that the image featuring China ’s ambassador Tang Songgen had been taken out of context. “The Marakei people can welcome dignitaries any way they like, it’s well known they follow many of the customs of their land,” said Katerina Teaiwa, an associate professor at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, whose father is from Kiribati. “Everyone should be less hysterical about this and more respectful towards the diversity of Pacific ways, islands should have cultural self-determination … Marakei was probably trying something extra customary to show honour and hospitality.” The episode has shown how closely Beijing’s growing ties with Pacific island nations are being scrutinised as the US and China are locked in a bitter competition for influence in the region – comprising 22 states and territories and the world’s largest expanse of ocean encompassing critical sea and air lines of communication. While many Pacific nations have long aligned themselves with the US and its allies, closer ties with China have been forged in recent years amid a push by Beijing to increase its diplomatic and financial clout. Kiribati, the site of a mothballed Chinese space tracking station, switched allegiance from Taiwan to China last year. Kiribati’s pro-China leader wins re-election in blow to Taiwan Its current president is the pro-China Taneti Maamau, who was recently re-elected after an aggressive campaign pitting him against an opposition candidate leaning towards Taiwan. In the weeks leading up to the presidential vote in June, Kiribati received more than US$4.2 million from Beijing for “livelihood projects”, according to a Kiribati government statement. The US military has raised concerns that Kiribati might allow China to build facilities for both military and civilian use on its largest island, which is just 2,000km (1,200 miles) south of Hawaii – home to the US Pacific Command. Maamau has insisted in interviews he will safeguard the country’s independence and has no plans to allow China to build military bases in the country. Raising islands Fuelling talk of China trying to increase its influence in Kiribati is an ambitious and expensive plan to battle rising sea levels in a country that is no more than two metres above sea level at its highest point. With a population of 115,000, Kiribati consists of 32 atolls spread across thousands of kilometres of ocean. Climate scientists have long argued that Kiribati will cease to exist in the next 80 years as sea levels rise. Former leader Anote Tong pursued an idea of “migration with dignity” – buying land in nearby Fiji and starting the process of relocating people. But Mamaau, who first came to power in 2016, rejected the migration strategy and instead announced that his government’s intention was to “put aside the misleading and pessimistic scenario of a sinking, deserted nation” by pursuing regional support to raise the islands above rising sea levels. In 2017, while unveiling Kiribati’s “20-year vision” to world leaders at the 23rd annual Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Maamau showcased a video pitch to wealthy investors to “transform Kiribati into the Dubai or Singapore of the Pacific” by building 5-star eco-resorts that will enable tourists to access “world-class diving, fishing and surfing experiences”. Paul Kench, a Canadian coastal geomorphologist working with the Kiribati government on the island-raising plan said previous assumptions that the nation would drown amid rising sea levels were “based on imperfect knowledge”. “Our work has shown that islands are natural features that can adjust their size and shape on reef platforms as sea-level changes. This understanding affords island nations a new set of opportunities,” he said A project like this would cost anywhere between US$100 million and US$300 million, almost twice Kiribati’s GDP Alexandre Dayant, Lowy Institute researcher on Kiribati’s island-raising project The prospect of Beijing funding such a project has fed into concerns of it “further deepening its influence … including in Kiribati’s strategic real estate”, said Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand . However, she noted that China’s involvement “does not automatically equate to building dual purpose ports and airfields” though this “is obviously the long-term concern”. “Kiribati and the US also have a Treaty of Friendship and Territorial Sovereignty which states that any military use by third parties of the islands shall be subject to consultation between Kiribati and the US,” she said. Debt distress Alexandre Dayant, a research fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute who monitors aid to the Pacific region, said that despite Kiribati making the diplomatic switch to China, not a lot has happened since. “Taiwan’s aid was an important component of the country’s resources and it leaves a void in the government’s revenue. With Taipei out of the country, there is currently a gap that observers believed Beijing would fill but apart from unfounded rumours that China will provide full funds for the procurement of several aeroplanes, we still cannot see much Chinese aid going in.” In any case, Dayant said, China is not alone in its efforts to increase influence in the Pacific. “Australia is currently engaged in its Pacific Step-Up, New Zealand has its Pacific Reset, the UK the Pacific Uplift … even Indonesia has a Pacific Elevation,” he said. Of all the troubles Kiribati will face in its effort to raise its islands, Dayant said financing is likely to be the biggest. “My understanding is that a project like this would cost anywhere between US$100 million and US$300 million, almost twice Kiribati’s GDP,” he said. “Loans are clearly not an option – Kiribati is considered as being in a high risk of debt distress according to the International Monetary Fund.” Pacific island nations beat Covid-19 but now face economic devastation This has raised concerns that Kiribati could be subjected to the kind of “debt-trap diplomacy” China has been accused of using elsewhere. A report for the Lowy Institute published last October found that Beijing was not deliberately engaging in such practices, but that “the sheer scale of Chinese lending” to Pacific states did “pose clear risks” for smaller nations of being overwhelmed by debt. Kench, the coastal geomorphologist, said seeking out financial support for Kiribati was more important than political point scoring for Kiribati. Could ties with Kiribati be a boost to China’s space ambitions? “There is a risk that we get caught up in the US vs China stand off – which inevitably rests around strategic ownership for military purposes. If this stalls progress on the project – then Kiribati will lose out,” he said. “Left unchecked, storm damages will be prevalent, land resources on the urban islands will be reduced and infrastructure will be in a parlous condition. This would undoubtedly impact the health and safety of communities and potable water resources will be diminished.” Powles of Massey University agreed that preoccupations with geopolitical competition amid the deepening US-China rift should not distract from Pacific island’s needs. “We should not lose sight of the fact that Pacific leadership has identified climate change as the existential threat,” she said.