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Plan to Upgrade WWII-era Pacific Ocean Airstrip Sparks Unease

FILE - An aerial view shows Kiritimati Island, part of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, April 5, 2016. China's plans to study the feasibility of upgrading a World War II-era airstrip on the Kiribati island of Kanton have been met with anxiety.

Australian and U.S. officials are closely monitoring a contentious plan to upgrade a World War II-era airstrip on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Kiribati is a remote country of 33 scattered coral atolls that straddle the equator. It has a population of about 100,000 but it is at the center of a geopolitical intrigue between China on the one hand, and the United States, and its allies, including Australia, on the other.

The Kiribati island of Kanton is a narrow strip of land with a rich military history. In World War II, the U.S. Navy built a 2-kilometer airstrip there to boost the campaign against Japanese forces in the Pacific. It was used into the 1970s for missile and space research, but is now rundown and rarely used.

Kiribati now has a plan to potentially upgrade the dilapidated runway and China has funded a study to see if it is feasible.
Authorities in Kiribati have insisted the project would be for civilian and nonmilitary use only and would help Kanton become a “high-end niche tourism destination.”

Given the island’s strategic location midway between Asia and the Americas, though, there are concerns in Australia and beyond that Beijing could be planning a new military base in the region.

Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at New Zealand’s Massey University, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Chinese involvement in the runway is causing unease.

“Kanton sits across major sea lanes between America, Australia and New Zealand and Asia. It is around 3,000 kilometers southwest of Hawaii, where the United States Indo-Pacific command is headquartered, which is part of that strategic anxiety,” Powles said.

Kiribati has few natural resources and is one of the least developed countries in the Pacific.

In 2019, it severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of Beijing.

The islands’ government has said speculation linking the runway project to Chinese military expansion in the region was unfounded. Opposition politicians in Kiribati have said they do not trust China’s government, though.

Australia has indicated it would be willing to help pay for an upgrade to the Kanton Island airstrip.

Kiribati was formerly the Gilbert Islands that became a British colony in 1915. They were captured by the Japanese during World War II in 1941, before being liberated by Allied forces.

The archipelago became independent from Britain in 1979 under the new name of Kiribati.

China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has said previously that Beijing was exploring plans for upgrading and improving the airstrip on Kanton Island at the invitation of the Kiribati government.