The Chinese move of Kiribati: a small island in the middle of the Pacific gains a huge geostrategic impact

(To Francesco Ferrante)
15/06/21

According to various rumors, the Chinese government intends to renovate and expand an airstrip on the island of Kanton, an island that is part of Kiribati, a nation whose territory is practically an archipelago in the middle of the central Pacific Ocean. If true, this could give Beijing an airbase in an incredibly strategic position, practically halfway between North America and New Zealand, thereby extending Beijing's "strategic arm" into a critical and increasingly tense region.

Reuters reported on ongoing developments regarding Chinese relations in Kiribati, which also included improvements to a bridge associated with the airstrip, on May 5, 2021, based on statements made by a Kiribati political representative, Tessie Lambourne (formerly ambassador to China).

At present, the site has a single usable track, which measures approximately 1.900 meters in length, although based on satellite images the total usable length could reach 2.450. The island, with a "ribbon" shape and a total area of ​​about 24 square km, with a population of 20 people, is part of the larger Phoenix island group of Kiribati. On the other hand, no inhabitants are registered in the other islands.

"The government has not shared the cost and other details apart from the feasibility study for the rehabilitation of the runway and the bridge"said Lambourne herself, who started the party last year Boutokaan Kiribati Moa, as opposed to Tobwaan Kiribati by President Taneti Maamau. "The opposition will seek more information from the government in due course"he later added to Reuters.

To date, neither official Kiribati sources nor Chinese authorities seem to want to reply in any way to the Reuters report; the same agency also claimed to have asked the US Navy and the US State Department for comment, but no one appears to have responded yet at the time the piece was published.

To tell the truth, there was talk of possible and important Chinese infrastructure projects in Kiribati as early as 2019, when the country, under President Maamau elected for the first time in 2016, recognized Beijing as the legitimate government of China and ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This essentially overturned the previous decision made by I-Kiribati officials in 2003 to recognize the governance of Taipei.

During World War II, the coral atoll airstrip was used by the US Air Force as a stop on the route between Hawaii and the South Pacific. After the war, civilian operators also used it as a transpacific port. The United States also used the island for space and missile monitoring until the late 60s. Nowadays, Canton Island Airport is only used for emergencies.

Once modernized, theoretically the existing track could already be sufficiently suitable for the hunting deployment, but if, as previously mentioned, the usable section were extended and made usable for the entire length of 2450 meters, the base would become suitable for the large transport, for the landing / take-off of maritime patrol aircraft and even strategic bombers. Given that all this would involve significant investments on the Chinese side, however, the strategic positioning of the Kanton runway would be a significant move on the international chessboard also as regards the deployment of ISR aircraft, including UAVs with high flight ranges, as it would extend the operational arm. of the People's Liberation Army both towards Hawaii on the one hand and towards Australia and New Zealand on the other.

Just last year, in fact, the'Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Aspi) declared1 that the Chinese structures on Kiribati would have been designed for a strategic Chinese positioning along the main sea routes between North America and Australia / New Zealand. As someone pointed out, effectively the island would become a permanent Chinese aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific.

With this in mind, it is worth understanding that if China's developments at the Kanton airport were to materialize with a purely military connotation, everything would be similar to what has already happened in the artificial outposts of China in the South China Sea: that is, both Beijing's demonstrated ability to transform remote, uninhabited islands into important military outposts. In addition to ensuring a secure foothold in a strategically relevant location, China's plans for Kiribati would have a considerable impact on direct access to that nation's vast exclusive economic zone, which covers well over 1,35 million. square miles and includes some of the most productive fishing areas in the Pacific.

When Beijing broke ties with Kiribati in 2003, due to the country's recognition of Taiwan, Beijing closed a space geolocation station on South Tarawa, another island in Kiribati, home to the country's capital and most of its infrastructure. This is another site that could be restored as Kiribati-China relations have started to grow with new blood.

However, it remains to be seen whether any Chinese improvements to the Kanton airport, or the associated infrastructure, have a clear military connotation or not. Concerns about similar abilities "Dual-use" they have already emerged from several projects launched by Beijing in other parts of the world, such as the Caribbean region, a point where China is showing growing interest.

At the same time, it must be said that some of the sites in question do not actually appear to have - at least directly - any military purpose, given their current form.2. The new airport in Cambodia34, completed last year, is one of these structures5. At least apparently, all of the infrastructure appears to be destined to serve a nearby luxury resort, despite claims by experts and observers that some of the runway features are unsuitable for commercial aviation.

That said, it is also true that it would by no means be too difficult for the Chinese authorities to reorganize such an airport for purely military use, or "Dual use", as an intermediate stopover base. And above all in a relatively short time.

References

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-taiwan-diplomacy-kiribati-idUSKBN1W50DI (20.09.2019)

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-kiribati-idUSKBN1WC2KB (29.09.2019)

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-kiribati-idUSKBN1Z5168 (06.01.2020)

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kiribati-china-idUSKBN25G0YX (20.08.2020)

https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3098125/chinese-diplomat-pictured-walking-locals-backs-highlights (21.08.2020)

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-kiribati-exclusive-idUSKBN2CM0IZ (05.05.2021)

https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/kiribati-says-china-backed-pacific-airstrip-project-civilian-use-2021-05-13/ (13.05.2021)

https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Indo-Pacific/China-extends-South-Pacific-reach-by-funding-runway-project (19.05.2021)