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Indo-Pacific

China extends South Pacific reach by funding runway project

Kiribati, in sea lane between US and Australia, eyes upgrade for planned resort

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, and Kiribati President Taneti Maamau shake hands in Beijing. The president's January 2020 visit produced a cooperation agreement on China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.   © Reuters

SYDNEY -- China will provide financial assistance to upgrade an airstrip in the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati, at a site once used during wartime by the U.S.

The runway renovation on Kanton, a remote island near the equator, is part of a plan by Kiribati to develop the isle into a high-end resort, according to a statement provided by a Kiribati press officer.

The airstrip will be used solely for civilian purposes, and the project carries no military aspects, the statement said.

Beijing initially will provide money for a feasibility study of the renovation. The amount of aid has not been disclosed.

Kiribati, located 3,000 km southwest of Hawaii, is home to just 120,000 people. Yet the country oversees one of the world's most expansive exclusive economic zones, covering roughly 3.6 million sq. kilometers.

The nation occupies a strategic position in the sea lanes connecting the U.S. and Australia. The Marshall Islands, to Kiribati's immediate north, hosts a U.S. military site for missile tests on Kwajalein Atoll.

In September 2019, Kiribati ended diplomatic ties with Taiwan dating to 2003 and formally switched to mainland China. President Taneti Maamau visited Beijing in January 2020 and signed a document on cooperation involving China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. The airstrip renovation appears to be connected to the agreement.

Kanton was used as a launch point for bombing raids by American planes during World War II, according to Reuters.

"Several U.S. territories such as Jarvis and other islands" are near Kanton, said Hideyuki Shiozawa, a senior program officer at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation who is an expert on the region. China "is conscious of the U.S." in offering the assistance, Shiozawa said.

Kiribati had held diplomatic ties with Beijing before establishing formal relations with Taiwan. In the late 1990s, China built a space tracking station in the Kiribati capital of Tarawa that was used until 2003.

Though the station reportedly was used for civilian purposes, some suspected the site also provided monitoring of the Kwajalein base. When Lu Kang, a senior Chinese diplomat, was asked in January 2020 whether the facility would be reopened, he did not deny that prospect.

"A lot of ideas, a lot of initiatives for joint ventures are still on the way," said Lu, according to Reuters.

South Pacific island nations have strong restrictions against entry by foreigners due to the coronavirus, but many think Chinese activity in the region will grow once the pandemic passes.

China is expanding its influence in the South Pacific through development assistance. In 2019, the Solomon Islands also cut formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and pivoted toward Beijing. A Chinese enterprise reportedly plans to build an industrial fisheries park in Papua New Guinea, an island nation 200 km from Australia.

If a South Pacific island develops an installation that could be used by China for military purposes, Beijing could be in better position to scrutinize movements by the U.S. and Australian militaries. Washington and Canberra are increasingly vigilant. Australia said in April that it will upgrade bases in the Northern Territory used for joint military exercises with the U.S.

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