China has drawn up plans to upgrade a runway and bridge on one of Kiribati’s remote islands, less than 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii, in an effort to revive a site where military planes were housed.
Plans include construction on the small island of Kanton (also spelled Kanton), a coral atoll strategically located midway between Asia and America.
Any major buildup on Canton, located 2,864 miles southwest of Hawaii and US military bases there, would provide a foothold for China deep into territory that has been firmly aligned with the US and its allies since World War II.
The airport may be able to support the deployment of hunters if it is modernized and improved, and if its usable size is increased.
The island could also be used to launch surveillance aircraft as it is strategically located between Hawaii and the Australia and New Zealand region.
Pictured: According to satellite images, the current state of Canton Airport in Kiribati
The island of Guangzhou, where the airport is located, is less than 2000 miles southwest of Hawaii
The development is due to the tensions in the region continuing to boil. However, China did not indicate whether the airport would be used for military purposes.
In a statement to Reuters, China’s Foreign Ministry said that at the invitation of the Kiribati government, China was exploring plans to upgrade and improve the runway to enable domestic transportation within Kiribati.
The statement said China’s cooperation with Kiribati was adhering to the concept of ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’ and ‘within the limits of its ability to provide aid without any political preconditions’.
Kiribati opposition lawmaker Tessie Lambourne told Reuters she was concerned about the project and wanted to know if it was part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
“The government has not shared the costs and other details, except that it is a feasibility study for the restoration of the runway and bridge,” Lambourne said. “The opposition will eventually request more information from the government.”
The Belt and Road Initiative referred to by Lambourne started in 2013 as a global infrastructure project that critics say is increasing China’s geopolitical influence around the world.
Lambourne was previously an ambassador to Taiwan, whose rapidly changing relationship with Kiribati has hit China in recent years.
The office of Kiribati President Taneti Maamau did not respond to inquiries.
China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to inquiries.
A flight of the United States Marine Corps departs from Kiribati for a mission to Australia
Despite being small, Kiribati, a country of 120,000 inhabitants, controls one of the largest exclusive economic zones in the world, covering more than 3.5 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean.
The United States Air Force used the runway during the war for an air ferry route between Hawaii and the South Pacific region.
The United States also used the runway for space and rocket tracking until the late 1960s.
Today, the runway is largely inactive and the Canton Island airport is used exclusively for emergencies.
“The island was to become a fixed aircraft carrier,” said a Pacific government adviser, who did not want to be named because of the project’s sensitivity.
The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet and the Office of East Asian and Pacific Affairs of the U.S. Department of State did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Law enforcement in Kiribati is currently working with the US Navy and Coast Guard on several missions, including fisheries protection in the Exclusive Economic Zone.
Kiribati has been at the center of a battle between China and the US and its Pacific allies in recent years.
In late 2019, it severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of China, in a decision overseen by Maamau, who subsequently won a closely contested election on a pro-China platform.
According to the Kiribati government, China provided $ 4.2 million for “livelihood projects” before the Maamau victory.
Just 16 years earlier, Kiribati recognized the Taipei government, which meant a rapid change of position.
The diplomatic shift, which reflected events in the Solomon Islands, was a setback for self-governing Taiwan, which China says is a province with no right to inter-state ties. Taiwan sees the US as a major international financier and supplier of weapons.
Canton has been used by the US for space and missile tracking, and its 6,230-foot-long runway hosted long-range bombers during the war.
Satellite images suggest the runway is closer to 8,000 feet in length, although about a fifth of it is currently unimproved.
The ride reports that only one usable runway is currently available on the runway.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) said in a paper last year that Chinese facilities on Kiribati would be positioned over major shipping routes between North America and Australia and New Zealand.
Beijing has labeled the think tank as “anti-China.”
In addition to its strategic significance, the waters around Canton are rich in fish, including tuna, although commercial fishing is prohibited as the island is located in a marine protected zone.
China did not specify whether the runway would be used for military purposes
There are about two dozen residents in Canton who depend on subsistence fishing and supply ships.
In 2003, China closed a space tracking station in Kiribati due to the decision to recognize Taiwan. That can also be restored, as China and Kiribati try to strengthen ties.
This is not the first time that the United States and China have appeared on an international military base on a collision course.
Three years ago, the US military accused Chinese personnel of shining a laser on a US transport crew in Djibouti, injuring several crew members.