Kiribati’s ‘red carpet’ welcome to Chinese envoy stirs controversy

By Shubha Singh

Aug 31, 2020

New Delhi: As the Covid-19 pandemic spread across countries and China came under international criticism for the delay in alerting the world about the crisis, Chinese diplomats adopted a new aggressive style to ward off the criticism. These pugnacious diplomats were termed as wolf warriors for the fierceness of their charge. The appellation came to be used in the Chinese state-owned media as the phenomenon was commented upon and closely analysed by western officials and media.

But now, a Chinese diplomat is facing flak for walking over a welcoming party in a tiny island state in the South Pacific. The Chinese envoy to Kiribati walked over the backs of young men, who were lying prone on the grass, as part of a local welcoming ritual. As pictures of the ritual hit social media and soon went viral creating a furore in the region. There was a spate of comments from American and Australian officials and others expressing shock at the envoy’s “arrogance”.

There was an added intensity to the furore due to China’s aggressive diplomacy and geopolitical rivalry in the region. On the defensive over the covid-19 pandemic, Chinese leaders sanctioned the wolf warrior diplomacy. It was to push back against the targeting of China for its lapses in dealing with the Corona virus. The usually impassive diplomat was replaced by a fierce fighter protecting his country’s honour and dignity against the onslaught of western criticism. The term wolf warrior came from a blockbuster patriotic Chinese movie of that name, which featured macho heroes fighting deadly enemies, which went on to spark a whole genre of films.. Chinese spokespersons and diplomats aggressively lashed out at critics while Chinese publications praised wolf warrior diplomats for their outspoken style. Chin also adopted a more aggressive foreign policy in the South China Sea and in dealing with Taiwan and other neighbours

The picture, taken by a local photographer sparked off a sharp controversy. Some saw the picture as Chinese arrogance while others spoke of western ignorance and lack of understanding of local customs and cultures. It was said to be a local custom, usually used in weddings but had been chosen by the local elders to honour the visiting diplomat.

In a riposte to the criticism, Beijing’s Global Times wrote that “portraying the welcome ceremony as being symbolic of subjugation reflects western politicians concerns over the growing friendship between China and Krirbati.”

The United States’ defence attache to Kiribati based in Fiji Islands, Commander Constantine Panayiotou, said on Twitter: “I simply cannot imagine any scenario in which walking on the backs of children is acceptable behaviour by an ambassador of any country. Yet here we are thanks to China’s ambassador to Kiribati.”

The controversy intensified as the Pacific region has been the arena for an intense struggle for influence between China, the US and Australia. Australia is the regional power in the South Pacific region. While Beijing may view the South China Sea as almost an inland sea, it perceives the Pacific Ocean as its backyard. Beijing has undertaken a major thrust in the region, offering aid, loans and large infrastructure projects to the small Pacific island states.

Beijing has also worked hard to persuade the Pacific Islands to switch their diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China. Last September, Kiribati broke its tie with Taiwan to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing. The Kiribati President paid a visit to China, where he was feted and signed on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The Kiribati residents have high expectations from their newly forged ties with Beijing. The low-lying archipelago in the Central Pacific Ocean is feeling the effects of rising sea levels and has already lost beaches and seafront to the encroaching sea waters. There is much anticipation about Chinese largesse among the islanders. The Chinese envoy was accorded a high welcome by the Marakel slanders, one of the smaller islands of Kiribati, some 60kms from the capital, Tarawa. As the controversy rages, one tweeter asked a pertinent question: Would it have been more respectful or a serious faux pas to acknowledge the offer, but decline to walk on the backs?

—India News Stream