By Jonathan Barrett
SYDNEY (Reuters) – The Pacific island nation of Kiribati said on Thursday that China-backed plans to upgrade an airstrip on a remote island about 3,000km southwest of Hawaii were a non-military project designed to improve transport links and bolster tourism.
The project involves revamping a near 2km (6,562ft) runway on the tiny island of Kanton (also spelled Canton), a coral atoll strategically located midway between Asia and the Americas, deep in territory that has been aligned with the U.S. and its allies since World War Two.
“The Kiribati Government has clarified the rehabilitation project for Kanton Island stating that the project is purely initiated for civilian use only,” the government said in a statement sent to Reuters.
The statement said that the Chinese government had provided grant support for a feasibility study.
Development partners were being sought for the project, according to the government, adding that rehabilitation of the site would support commercial air travel between Kiribati’s islands and turn Kanton into a “high-end niche tourism destination”.
The airstrip, formerly a major stop on commercial trans-Pacific airline flights and a military aircraft base during World War Two, is now rarely used. The island has about two dozen residents.
Kanton is in the highly strategic central Pacific, southwest of Hawaii and U.S. military bases there.
The Kiribati government statement was issued in response to a Reuters story last week disclosing details of the project and noting concerns raised by the parliamentary opposition over China’s involvement.
In late 2019, Kiribati severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of China, a decision overseen by Kiribati President Taneti Maamau, who went on to win a closely contested election on a pro-China platform.
China’s foreign ministry said in a statement last week that China was exploring plans for upgrading and improving the airstrip at the invitation of the Kiribati government.
Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas), a nation of 120,000 residents, controls one of the biggest exclusive economic zones in the world, covering more than 3.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific.
The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
(China plans to upgrade Kiribati airstrip: https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-KIRIBATI/xegvbdnwevq/CHINA-KIRIBATI.jpg)
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett)