Pr Marc Lavergne, Head Researcher, National Center for Scientific Research, University of Tours France

Last June, the Kiribati archipelago, a young nation of a mere 110 000 inhabitants in the central Pacific Ocean, which became independent in 1979, and a member of the United Nations in 1999, reelected Mr Tenati Maamau as its president for a second mandate. This event should have remained unnoticed in the world’s chanceries. So what ?

The point is that Kiribati long remained one of the last 15 world nations keeping diplomatic links with Taiwan- of which 4 are tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean. But Mr Maamau changed side last year, to recognize Peking instead, basically for financial reasons. One of them seems to be a subsidy for the purchase of a plane, needed to develop tourism, its only viable resource, and connect the islands with the capital city, Tarawa.

But this move might reflect much more than local business : the Kiribati archipelago covers a maritime area of over 3.5 million square kilometers, the scale of Europe or the United states : its 35 tiny islands are spread over 3000 km from East to West, on both sides of the Equator and of the International Date Line. This did not remain unnoticed from Peking, as the islands are relatively close to Hawaii, the 50th of the United States of America, where Honolulu is the seat of the US Pacific Command. Peking was even till 2003 maintaining on Kiritimati, the largest atoll in the world, a spatial monitoring base, which it could soon refurbish and use to monitor US activities in the area.

At a time when Peking is harshly imposing its rule on Hong Kong, raising concerns about Taiwan’s safety, it becomes clear that its ambitions are not limited to the South China’s seas : the Pacific ocean is its new space to conquer, defying Washington and Canberra, the Australian capital.

Another aspect of this development is that it sheds light on the change in the world’s gravity center : when the Middle East, Europe and Africa keep riddled with old quarrels and rivalries, the long announced economic and political new nexus of the Indo-Pacific domain is rapidly taking shape. This reflects in the strategic withdrawal of America from the Middle East, where it seems to delegate its role to trustworthy allies. But the shift toward Far East might well give room, not only to an affluent trading network for the benefit of mankind, but also to a new battleground between new and old giants.