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China plans to revive strategic Kiribati airstrip: MP

China has drawn up plans to upgrade an airstrip and bridge on one of Kiribati’s remote islands south-west of Hawaii, in a bid to revive a site that hosted military aircraft during World War II.

The plans, which have not been made public, involve construction on the tiny island of Kanton (also spelt Canton), a coral atoll strategically located midway between Asia and the Americas.

Kiribati opposition MP Tessie Lambourne told Reuters she was concerned about the project, and wanted to know whether it was part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The Pacific archipelago of Kiribati.Credit:AP

“The government hasn’t shared the cost and other details other than it’s a feasibility study for the rehabilitation of the runway and bridge,” Lambourne said. “The opposition will be seeking more information from government in due course.”

The office of Kiribati President Taneti Maamau did not respond to questions.

Kiribati’s President Taneti Maamau, left, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang before a meeting in Beijing last year.Credit:AP

The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to questions.

Despite being small, Kiribati, a nation of 120,000 residents, controls one of the biggest exclusive economic zones in the world, covering more than 3.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific.

Any significant build-up on Kanton, located 3000 kilometres south-west of Hawaii and US military bases there, would offer a foothold to China deep into territory that had been firmly aligned to the US and its allies since World War II.

“The island would be a fixed aircraft carrier,” said one adviser to Pacific governments, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the project.

Kiribati (red pin) is strategically located between Australia, the United States and the US base in Guam (centre left).Credit:Google Maps

The US Navy’s 7th Fleet and US State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) has in recent years been at the centre of a tussle between China and the US and its Pacific allies.

In late 2019 it severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of China, in a decision overseen by Maamau, who went on to win a closely contested election on a pro-China platform.

The diplomatic shift, which mirrored events in the Solomon Islands, was a setback for self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as a province with no right to state-to-state ties. Taiwan counts the US as an important international backer and supplier of arms.

Kanton has been used by the US for space and missile tracking operations and its near two-kilometre runway hosted long-range bombers during the war.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) said in a paper last year that Chinese facilities on Kiribati would be positioned across major sea lanes between North America, and Australia and New Zealand.

Beijing has labelled the think tank as “anti-China”.

Along with its strategic significance, the waters around Kanton are rich in fish, including tuna, although commercial fishing is prohibited as the island is in a marine protected zone.

There are around two dozen residents on Kanton who rely on subsistence fishing and supply ships.


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