The statement did not defend or explain the welcome ceremony, but it appeared to be a response to the discussion online after the image was posted on Facebook and Twitter a few days ago.
Cmdr. Constantine Panayiotou, the U.S. defense attaché based in Fiji, was among those who took up the cause, delivering a rebuke on Twitter: “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 officials provided a similar critique, prompting a flood of objections from people who were familiar with the ritual. Some pointed out that the people lying on their stomachs all seemed to be adults. Others noted that the ceremony was an expression of respect, initiated not by the ambassador, but rather by local elders.
“This is mainly seen at weddings but not all islands,” Dr. Teaiwa wrote on Twitter. The people of Marakei, she added, have a right to decide how to welcome people, and they were “probably trying something extra customary to show honor and hospitality.”
In an interview, she said she believed that an Australian ambassador had once taken part in a similar ritual. (Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that it was not aware of any senior diplomat ever participating.)
Commander Panayiotou, when asked about his response on Wednesday, said that he would not be able to comment except to say that the tweet “reflects my own personal opinions,” not the official position of the U.S. Embassy in Fiji or the Defense Department. Other American officials have said they are worried that China will exploit rampant corruption in Kiribati to build strategic outposts on Christmas Island, which sits south of Hawaii.
Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, who has frequently criticized the Chinese government’s approach to the region, said the intent of the ceremony simply could not compete with the way it would be viewed: “as a visual image of the perceived unbalanced neocolonial relationship.”