The news that a Chinese missile shot down an old satellite has made headlines around the world. The successful strike confirms that China is well on the way to developing a space-warfare capability. Less coverage has been given to an unexpected Pacific connection and the small but not insignificant part that a tiny atoll nation played and may play again in China’s space ambitions. For six years China operated a satellite tracking and control station on Tarawa atoll in Kiribati. Its central Pacific position just a few degrees above the equator makes it a key space location. The station raised questions about China’s bid to foster dual- use space capabilities that benefit the economy and boost military prowess. If a ground station can track satellites, then it can track missiles. The Tarawa station helped track the first Chinese man in space in October 2003.
Less than a month after this triumph, however, China was forced to close it down after the newly elected president suddenly recognised Taiwan. The tug-of-war between China and Taiwan for the diplomatic allegiance of Pacific states has become an all-too-familiar drama in the region, but there were a few Cold War-esque twists to the Kiribati defection. Kiribati is an unlikely nation of 33 coral atolls scattered across an ocean area roughly the size of Australia. Formerly the Gilbert part of the British protectorate of Gilbert and Ellice Islands, it was granted independence in 1979. A quarter of its 100,000 population lives in overcrowded squalor in the tiny islet capital of South Tarawa. At low tide total area of dry land is 2.6sqkm. There is no fresh water. Little grows in the thin coral soil. Hepatitis and tuberculosis are endemic. Beaches function as a communal lavatory so that reef fish cannot be eaten without risk of gastric illness or ciguatera poisoning. Deepwater tuna is the staple diet. Ships deliver tinned corned beef, the odd vegetable or fruit and most importantly beer. The Government relies on tuna fishing licence fees and foreign aid for income. Remittances from i-Kiribati phosphate workers in Nauru and seamen on foreign cargo ships form a small but welcome proportion of revenue.In the midst of this wretched community, a new Chinese embassy with dark reflector windows appeared in the mid- 1990s. The rationale for the sudden diplomatic presence became clear only when the Government announced that it had leased land in an isolated grove for a Chinese satellite-tracking station. The secrecy surrounding the station fuelled local unease. Customs officials were not allowed to go near shipping containers brought in to build the station. Rumours flew thick and fast. Chinese submarines were surfacing at night to unload guns. The embassy had a secret armoury. The Government was paid to keep quiet. Realising that they had a public- relations problem, Chinese officials led some i-Kiribati on a tour of the embassy and station. This did little to quell growing disquiet. Officially, the station was part of China’s civilian space program. A 15-year lease stipulated that it would not be used for military purposes, although Kiribati had no way of monitoring this restriction. The only installation of its type outside China at the time, military personnel staffed the ”civilian” base. China paid an annual rent of $US250,000 to the Government. Analysts debated its strategic value. Some argued that its real purpose was to spy on a US testing station for its missile-defence program (that China opposes) on Kwajalein atoll in the nearby Marshall Islands. Others said its dishes were too small and pointed to superior intelligence-gathering equipment on China’s Yuan Wang tracking ships. Perhaps the station provided a land base from which their movements could be coordinated, with one ship stationed in the Pacific and another making the odd visit. Yet every time the United States conducted a test on Kwajalein, the Chinese presence in Tarawa swelled. During the Cold War the Soviet Union caused consternation in the US when it negotiated a fishing agreement with Kiribati. The US saw Russian fishing fleets as potential spy ships, given the proximity of fishing grounds to its Kwajalein (then) nuclear testing station. A Pacific-wide policy of ”strategic denial” ensued to prevent the Soviets from gaining a foothold in the region. An American response to the Chinese installation was thus inevitable. Two American F-16 fighter jets ”buzzed” the site in 2002, spooking some islanders. Would the more aggressive, post- 9/11 United States attack Kiribati because it hosted a Chinese spy station? This was no doubt in the back of some voters’ minds when Kiribati went to the polls the following February. The station was a hot election issue. Taiwanese cash backed opposition leader Anote Tong, who pledged to review the station agreement. China supported his half-brother and rival Harry Tong. Demonstrations over Chinese interference in the elections forced a second round in July, which Anote won. Then he suddenly announced that Kiribati would cut 23 years of ties with mainland China and switch allegiance to Taiwan. Taiwan reportedly paid over $11 million in ”aid” but speculation was rife that the US was behind the switch and helped pay the bill. China’s response was swift. Unable to tolerate this abrogation of its one-China policy it severed diplomatic ties, dismantled the station within days and withdrew all aid, infrastructure and medical support. But China still maintains a ”care-taking” mission and unofficial staff in South Tarawa, suggesting that it is cooling its heels until a more ”China- friendly” government takes office again. President Tong complains that remaining staff distribute leaflets against his government. With elections in Kiribati in July this year, it will be interesting to see if China tries to woo back the atoll nation and, if so, to what lengths it is prepared to go and how much it is willing to pay. This will at least put a price on the strategic value of remote equatorial real estate as China steps up its quest to become a military superpower in space.
Susan Windybank is a foreign policy research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.