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China to Build Airport in Kiribati in the Pacific

Beijing plans to rebuild an airport based on an abandoned U.S. military airfield runway and a bridge on Kanton Island, in the Republic of Kiribati. The move shows China’s ambition to further its foothold in the Pacific Ocean.

The island nation of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean has a population of 120,000 but has one of the largest exclusive economic zones in the world, covering an area of more than 3.5 million square kilometers of waters. Kanton Island is midway between Hawaii and Australia and 3,000 kilometers southwest of the U.S. military base in Hawaii. Any major infrastructure on the island would provide China with a stronghold deep into the region where the United States has maintained strong ties with and its allies since World War II.

Kanton has been a nature reserve since 2006. China plans to build a 2-kilometer long airstrip. During the World War II, the U.S. military used the island as part of an air ferry route between Hawaii and the South Pacific region. After the war, commercial airlines used the island as a trans-Pacific stopover for refueling.

Until the late 1960s, the U.S. had used the island for space and missile tracking; today, Kanton is used only for emergencies. Analysis indicates that once the existing runway is upgraded, it will be long enough to support the deployment of fighter jets. If further upgraded and extended, it will be able to support the deployment of large transport aircraft and maritime patrol aircraft.

China also has plans to build container ports in the region. Kiribati and Solomon established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 2019 after breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan. They also joined the “Belt & Road Initiative.” Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Kiribati President Taneti Maamau on January 6, 2020.

The other four island nations in the Pacific region — the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Nauru, and Palau — continue to maintain diplomatic and economic relations with Taiwan. Palau’s new President Surangel Whipps has called for greater U.S. investment in the region.

China’s economic development efforts have resulted in the partial or complete purchase of more than a dozen ports around the world since 1990, with Southeast Asia among the major areas of Chinese investment. The current increase in Chinese investment in Pacific ports and islands is part of its longer-term strategic consideration. There have been concerns about the dual commercial and military use of these ports, although Beijing does not acknowledge its military purposes.

Source: Radio France International, May 7, 2021