Kiribati atoll 2,000 km from Hawaii gets U.S. wharf as China eyes airport
Kiribati atoll 2,000 km from Hawaii gets U.S. wharf as China eyes airport
Kiribati atoll 2,000 km from Hawaii gets U.S. wharf as China eyes airport
by DZRH News27 October 2023
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden chats with President of Kiribati Taneti Maamau as Prime Minister of the Cook Islands Mark Brown stands next to them while Pacific Island nation leaders pose for a group photograph during a summit at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 25, 2023. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A Pacific atoll 2,000 miles west of Hawaii appears set for a construction boom, with the United States and Australia on Thursday pledging a wharf for remote Kanton Island as China considers plans to revive a World War Two airfield.

Kiribati's population of 115,000 is scattered among 33 atolls over 3.5 million sq km (1.3 million sq miles) of ocean, and it has been a base for both U.S. and Chinese space tracking stations at different times.

One atoll, in particular, has recently become a focus for Washington and Beijing, after China resumed diplomatic ties with Kiribati, pronounced "kiribass", in 2019.


Kanton Island is a strip of land just 50 metres wide in some places whose 43-km length encloses a parallelogram-shaped lagoon. During World War Two it was a U.S. military base, with a wharf big enough for large ships, and a refuelling stop for flights between the United States and Australia.

Kiribati says it wants to build a hotel there to attract tourists.

In a joint statement on Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said they would co-finance maritime infrastructure in Kiribati, and rebuild Kanton Wharf.

The U.S. had already committed $29m to help Kiribati youth employment at a White House summit for the Pacific Islands last month.


China for its part sent experts to the atoll in March to conduct a feasibility study to build a Kanton Island Airport, with Chinese visitors able to travel to Kiribati visa-free from this month.

A Chinese diplomat in Kiribati told Reuters in a statement on Thursday that the proposal was still being studied.

However, a China Daily editorial last month said the U.S. had tried to block the Chinese plan.

The Chinese diplomat said Kiribati had pulled out of China's Belt and Road Forum in Beijing this month, citing its need to prepare to host a Pacific Islands fisheries meeting. Kiribati's government did not respond to a request for comment.


A Pacific expert at the Australian National University, Graeme Smith, said that amid strategic competition in the Pacific Islands, Kiribati was seen as a "country up for grabs - whether it sits in the China or U.S. camp".

"It is western Pacific, which is really America's backyard. It is very close to Hawaii," he said.

Washington pledged billions in economic support to nearby Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and Marshall Islands, under Compacts of Free Association (COFA) struck in the 1980s that saw the U.S. retain responsibility for their defense.

Kiribati, just as important geographically, got no such deal, Smith said.


(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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