SYDNEY – Australian and U.S. officials are closely monitoring a contentious plan to upgrade a World War II-era airstrip on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Kiribati is a remote country of 33 scattered coral atolls that straddle the equator. It has a population of about 100,000 but it is at the center of a geopolitical intrigue between China on the one hand, and the United States, and its allies, including Australia, on the other.
The Kiribati island of Kanton is a narrow strip of land with a rich military history. In World War II, the U.S. Navy built a 2-kilometer airstrip there to boost the campaign against Japanese forces in the Pacific. It was used into the 1970s for missile and space research, but is now rundown and rarely used.
Kiribati now has a plan to potentially upgrade the dilapidated runway and China has funded a study to see if it is feasible.
Authorities in Kiribati have insisted the project would be for civilian and nonmilitary use only and would help Kanton become a “high-end niche tourism destination.”
Given the island’s strategic location midway between Asia and the Americas, though, there are concerns in Australia and beyond that Beijing could be planning a new military base in the region.
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