A photo reportedly showing the Chinese ambassador to Kiribati walking on peoples’ backs as part of an island welcoming ceremony has ignited debate about outsider interpretation of local custom, as well as geopolitical argument about China’s rising influence across the Pacific.
The Chinese ambassador Tang Songgen visited the island of Marakei earlier this month.
A photograph taken of his arrival shows the ambassador walking along the backs of young men who had lain on the ground in front of him.
The ambassador is holding the hands of two women in traditional dress.
While some observers have argued the image is emblematic of China’s increasing influence in the archipelagic nation (the Kiribati government controversially and suddenly switched its diplomatic alliance from Taipei to Beijing last September), many i-Kiribati online have argued the practice is traditional and the photo has been wilfully misinterpreted.
The United States’ defence attache to five Pacific Islands including Kiribati, Commander Constantine Panayiotou, said online: “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.”
Australian parliamentarian Dave Sharma, a former diplomat who served in Australia’s mission in Papua New Guinea, said he was surprised by the image.
“I’d be very surprised if an Australian representative participated in such a ceremony of this nature,” he told the ABC.
The head of Australia’s office for the Pacific said on Tuesday that the current high commissioner, Bruce Cowled, had not participated in any similar ceremony.
However, many i-Kiribati pointed out the practice is customary on many islands in the archipelago, and that the formal gesture of welcome had been taken out of context.
“This is our island’s show of respect for guests,” Adlih Ztuhcs said online. “If a foreigner marries into a family the men would lie down as a way of welcome. As for the women, the men will carry her on her shoulders to her destination. The same form of welcoming is afforded to all and is seen during weddings and first time visits. Let’s not manipulate facts to suit our stories.”
Dr Katerina Teaiwa, associate professor at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, said while symbolism could be potent, the people of Marakei appeared to be showing honour and hospitality, rather than any suggestion of subjugation.
“The Marakei people can welcome dignitaries any way they like, it’s well known they follow many of the customs of their land. Everyone should be less hysterical about this and more respectful towards the diversity of Pacific ways, islanders should have cultural self-determination.
“Pacific peoples can work out themselves which customs need to be kept or reshaped for our times and which should be changed if violent, discriminatory, etc. I’m always impressed with how i-Kiribati continue to respect the spirits of abara – our lands – in spite of colonial rule.”
Tang, appointed China’s ambassador to Kiribati in March, posted a statement online about his visit to Tabiteuea North, Tabiteuea South, and Marakei earlier this month.
“The embassy team was warmly welcomed and received in those islands by the old men, the island councils as well as the local people. We were greeted in traditional courtesies, invited to local maneaba [meeting house] ceremonies, where the whole team was overwhelmed by the unique culture and hospitality.”
The statement said “our primary goal is to have China-Kiribati relationship benefit more Kiribati people”.
A former British colony made up of three archipelagos sprawled over an ocean area the size of India, Kiribati has acquired significant strategic importance in the era of US-China rivalry in the Pacific.
US concerns were enlivened last year after Kiribati’s president Taneti Maamau made a sudden and controversial decision to switch Kiribati’s diplomatic recognition back to China after 17 years allied to Taiwan.
The US military has flagged concerns that Kiribati might allow China to build dual-use (military and civilian) facilities on its largest island, Christmas, just 2,000km south of Hawaii, and home of the US Pacific Fleet.
Kiribati is already developing fishing infrastructure on Christmas in partnership with a Chinese company, but Maamau told the Guardian this month “there was never any intention or plan by this government to allow China an accessory base in Kiritimati [Christmas]”.