The Chinese government has plans to modify and expand the airstrip on the island of Kanton or Canton, part of an island chain of Kiribati in the central Pacific Ocean.
If the plan goes successful, it will give Beijing an airbase with a very strategic location between North America and New Zealand. Through this development, China’s military will gain a massive reach in this increasingly tense region.
A well-known news agency Reuters first reported the Chinese advancements in the region, which also included upgrading the bridge attached with the island, on May 5, 2021, based on the data provided by I-Kiribati politician Tessie Lambourne.
The small piece of land currently has a single runway in use. Out of 8,000 feet, the 6,230 is excellent or in useful condition based on satellite images. The island only holds an area of about 15 square miles with a population of 20 and is part of Kiribati’s wider Phoenix Islands group.
“The government hasn’t shared the cost and details other than it’s a feasibility study for the rehabilitation of the runway and bridge,” Lambourne, who formed the Boutokaan Kiribati Moa Party last year, which is in opposition to President Taneti Maamau’s Tobwaan Kiribati Party. “The opposition will be seeking more information from the government in due course.”
“The opposition will be seeking more information from the government in due course.”
These Chinese development projects in Kiribati have been under talks since 2019, when the president of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau, recognized Beijing as the legitimate government, ending its diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This was the contrast decision of I-Kiribati officials taken in 2003, in which they recognized Taipei as the legitimate government.
The U.S. Army Air Forces used the coral atoll’s airstrip to provide the air path between Hawaii and the South Pacific during World War II. After that, it still remained in use as a trans-Pacific stopover for many civil operators.
The U.S. military also used the Canton island for missile tracking up until the 1960s. Today the island airport is only operational for emergencies. The photo below shows the location of Canton on the South Pacific Ferry Route during wartimes.
How It Instigated:
The Chinese advancements in Canton Airport will be very helpful for its air defense and the existing runway would be long enough to support fighter deployments, but supporting the large transport will only be possible if the remaining part of the runway is improved and extended to full 8,000 feet, then it can carry maritime patrol aircrafts or even bombers.
A substantial investment would be needed to support the infrastructure that can sustain meaningful and long-term deployments of military aircraft, including ground staff, hangars, fueling, maintenance, and crew accommodation facilities.
A Strategic Location
- The airstrip location is critical and would be very useful for surveillance aircrafts, including unmanned long-endurance flights.
- It will also help by extending reach towards Hawaii in one direction and Australia and New Zealand in the other.
- The People’s Liberation Army will have the advantages, including continuous intelligence gathering, full control over the near sea waters, and long-range targeting.
With this plan in mind, if China succeeds in all these developments at Canton Airport and has an evident military attachment, they could also add anti-access and ariel denial facilities, such as surface-based anti-ship cruise missiles.
Apart from the military complex, the small area can also be converted into a command, and communication and control center.
This program is similar to what China has already been doing in the South China Sea by making artificial outposts.
These artificial islands may have weaker self-defense but give China distinctive advantages in safeguarding its sovereignty and prolonging a military presence in the deep ocean.
Whether or not these Chinese developments to infrastructure in Canton Airport eventually have an apparent military dimension, is yet to be seen.
Concerns about some other similar dual-use capabilities emerging from Chinese development projects have been seen worldwide; for example, the Caribbean region is another increasing focus of Chinese interest.
There have been significant Chinese investments in port facilities and maritime infrastructure in multiple countries in this region, with underlying concerns from the United States, in particular, that they might also have a military application.
At the same time, some of the islands are not equipped with military-mission tech, at least in their current form. Some of them are intended to serve nearby luxury resorts.
But it would not be so difficult for China’s authorities to convert such islands or airstrips for the military’s cause, even on an emergency basis as a present intermediate base, and so in a relatively brief period.
U.S. Kiribati Relation
There are several assumptions on China’s advancements in the South China Sea. Still, whatever the Chinese geopolitical plans on Canton, and whether it will pursue its military goals there, it is another one of its growing impact in the Pacific.
This for sure is a big challenge for Beijing’s competitors in the region, and who could be the biggest rival in the Pacific for China, yes, the United States is on top.
The relationship between U.S. and Kiribati was normalized under a friendship treaty in 1979.According to the U.S. Department of State, the two countries are working side by side on a broad range of issues, from improving regional stability to advancing towards a good education and climate resilience.
The U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard, and Kiribati law agencies have collaborated in doing rescue operations, fisheries protection in the country’s exclusive economic zone.
The U.S. military also has used some other airstrips in Kiribati for various operations in the Pacific. After all, it is only 1,860 miles southwest of Hawaii, with its ample military installations belonging to the U.S.
China and U.S. in Canton
The increasing influence of China in Kiribati could threaten the ties between the U.S. and Kiribati, and any Chinese military deployment would cause friction in the region and in the collaboration between the countries.
Things can go wrong anytime between China and the U.S. in regions like these, just like it did in Djibouti in 2018. The Chinese military established a base in the East African country of Djibouti, an area with a significant U.S. military hub, where the U.S. military accused Chinese personal of injuring U.S. crew members of C-130 Hercules by shining a laser at them.
On this account, whatever Beijing’s geopolitical plans for Canton Airport might be, and whether it will hold any Chinese military presence in the future, it is undeniably another effort of the Chinese geopolitical expansion in the South Pacific.
“The government hasn’t shared the cost and details other than it’s a feasibility study for the rehabilitation of the runway and bridge,”