China is planning to rehabilitate an airstrip and bridge on the coral island of Kanton, which is part of the central Pacific archipelago of Kiribati, about 1,000km northeast of Fiji. Â
Tessie Lambourne, a member of Kiribati’s parliament, told the Reuters news agency that the government had not made any details of the scheme public, other than that a feasibility study would be carried out for the rehabilitation of the runway and bridge. She added: "The opposition will be seeking more information from government in due course."
Kanton (also known as Canton) is one of the Phoenix Islands, a group of eight atolls with a total land area of 28 sq km.
The 1.9km airstrip on Kanton (also known as Canton) was built in 1939 by Pan American Airways as a stopover on its route from Hawaii to New Zealand. The US later based heavy bombers there during the Second World War. With the end of the war and the beginning of long-distance jet travel, the island was no longer needed and the airport was closed in 1968.
The airstrip is now used only as an emergency landing place for flights in distress. There is no information as yet on what it would be used for if it were to be rehabilitated.
A Pan Am Boeing 377 Stratocruiser undergoing engine repair at Kanton Island in 1955 (Public Domain)
In late 2019, Taneti Maamau, the president of Kiribati, severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of China, and went on to win an election on a pro-China platform. The decision followed a similar switch in the Solomon Islands, which then attracted an $825m infrastructure investment programme from Beijing (see further reading)
Reuters comments that any significant build-up on Kanton, located 3,000km southwest of Hawaii, would offer a foothold to China deep into territory that had been firmly aligned to the US and its allies since World War Two.
Kirbati has a small population – just 120,000 citizens – but the archipelago covers an area of more than 3.5 million square kilometres, roughly the size of India.
It is also facing an existential threat from rising sea levels and suffers from high levels of deprivation and low levels of basic infrastructure, particularly in sanitation.
Top image: A house on Kanton Island. The island has some 24 residents who live by subsistence fishing (Public Domain)