China has established a beachhead even closer to the U.S. with its plans to build a military base on an island belonging to the small island-nation of Kiribati – only 1,800 miles southwest of major U.S. bases on Hawaii. The Chinese plans reportedly involve construction on the tiny island of Kanton (also spelled Canton), a coral atoll measuring only 15 square miles. It is strategically located midway between Asia and the Americas, notes Reuters.
“The island would be a fixed aircraft carrier,” said one adviser to Pacific governments, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the project.
Kanton has a population of about 20 people and is part of Kiribati’s wider ‘Phoenix Islands’ group, none of the others of which are inhabited.
This strategic move breaks decades of pro-U.S. alignment by Kiribati. Kanton has been used by the U.S. for space and missile tracking operations and its nearly 6,300 ft runway hosted long-range bombers during WWII, but in late 2019 it severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of China; a controversial decision at the time.
With only 120,000 residents, Kiribati also controls one of the biggest exclusive economic zones in the world, covering more than 2.2 million square miles of the Pacific. Many analysts believe CHina corruptly bought its influence with the current leadership of Kiribati, as part of its massive influence operation throughout the region.
The island’s airfield’s runway is potentially threatening to U.S. forces in the region, explains The Drive. While officially measuring 6,230 feet in length, the total unimproved length is closer to 8,000 feet, based on satellite imagery.
The Drive adds:
The existing runway at Canton Airport, once modernized, could be long enough to support fighter deployments, but the improved section would likely need to be extended out to the full 8,000 feet length to support large-size transports, as well as maritime patrol aircraft or even bombers…
The location of the airstrip would be especially useful for surveillance aircraft flights, including those by long-endurance unmanned aircraft, extending reach toward both Hawaii in one direction, and Australia and New Zealand in the other. Persistent intelligence-gathering, sea control, and long-range maritime targeting would all be of interest for the People’s Liberation Army in this region.
The Drive continues:
…if China’s developments at Canton Airport come to fruition and have an overt military component, they could also include other anti-access and area denial capabilities, such as surface-to-air missiles or shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles. Command and control and communications nodes might be another addition to any such military complex. This would all be similar to what has been seen on China’s man-made outposts in the South China Sea, which also simply underscore the country’s demonstrated ability to turn remote, uninhabited islands into important military facilities.