China is Planning to revamp a remote but strategically located airstrip on a remote island in Kiribati, a move that has jolted two key countries belonging to the Indo-Pacific QUAD, the US and Australia.
The Chinese are eying a World War-II vintage military airstrip, which is 3,000 km southwest of Hawaii. It is also not far from busy commercial shipping lanes running from the US to Australia and New Zealand.
In a paper written last year, The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) sounded the alarm. ‘During World War II, Japan’s attempts to block the same lanes were defeated, starting with the Battle of the Coral Sea and then the taking of Guadalcan in Solomon Islands.
Today, China is moving to achieve control over the vital trans-Pacific sea lines of communication under the guise of assisting with economic development and climate change adaptation,’ the ASPI paper observed.
The Chinese moves are part of its plan at global assertion, including the Indo-Pacific region, with the QUAD, comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US as the spearhead.
Reuters is reporting that China’s plans, which have not been made public so far, involve construction on the tiny island of Kanton (also spelled Canton), a coral atoll strategically located midway between Asia and the Americas.
The report quoted Kiribati opposition lawmaker Tessie Lambourne as saying that she was concerned about the project, and wanted to know whether it was part of China’s Belt & Road Initiative.
The Kiribati lawmaker was referring to China’s trans-continental connectivity initiative which included the ever-evolving Maritime Silk Road, with radials heading the direction of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
‘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 the government in due course.
The Chinese have apparently planned their inroads in Kiribati, by cultivating incumbent President Taneti Maamau.
This is not surprising, given Kiribati’s unique geographic location. Despite its small size, Kiribati has only 120,000 residents, the archipelago has compelling strategic attributes. Specifically, it controls one of the biggest exclusive economic zones in the world, spanning more than 3.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific.
Since World War II, Kiribati has allied with western powers, but this has been challenged by a rising China, which is expanding its geopolitical footprint around key pivots in the oceanic as well as continental domains.
The island would be a fixed aircraft carrier,’ Reuters quoted one unnamed adviser to Pacific governments.
Kiribati’s pro-China turnaround became evident in 2019, when it terminated its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Instead, it recognised China under Maamau, who had earlier narrowly won an election on a pro-Beijing ticket.
China’s growing influence has been a military setback for the US, which was using Kanton to track missiles and using its two-kilometre-long runway for flying long-range bombers.
Analysts point out that Kiribati was the second domino to fall after China began to cherry pick locations across the globe, which it could manoeuvre to expand its international reach.
In September 2019, the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, had also switched diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China. China’s moves in the Pacific islands signal that the Indo-Pacific is likely to emerge as a prime area of geopolitical frictions, which are likely to test the resolve of the QUAD.