China Targets Military Base on Pacific Island for Development

By Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia, a former PLA engineer, specialized in aviation equipment and engineering technology management. After retiring from military service, he has been following the world's development of military equipment.
July 14, 2021 Updated: July 14, 2021

At the center of the Pacific Ocean, there is a small 3.6 square mile island called Canton (Kanton), where a dilapidated airstrip once served as an important transit and supply center for the United States during World War II. After being abandoned for over 40 years, the island has become the target of the CCP’s expansion.

Canton Island is made up of coral atolls and belongs to the Republic of Kiribati. During World War II, Canton Airport served as an airbase of the U.S. Army, and U.S. bombers utilized its runways as part of the “air ferry” route from Hawaii to the South Pacific.

Kiribati is an island nation spanning 32 atolls in the Pacific Ocean covering more than 1.4 million square miles.

The Kiribati parliamentary disclosed in May that the CCP had explored a plan to rehabilitate the derelict airstrip and bridge on Canton Island and restore the remaining U.S. military base.

Although the Kiribati government stated that the facility upgrade program is for civilian purposes of promoting transportation and tourism on the island, hardware facilities will also meet military needs, making the program controversial.

The runway on Canton Island is approximately 6,200 feet long, and if repaired and upgraded, the total length of the runway might exceed 7,800 feet. The U.S. military believes that once the existing runway is upgraded, it will be capable of meeting the requirements of combat aircraft, even large transport aircraft, maritime patrol aircraft, and bomber aircraft. That’s why the CCP’s plan to expand the Canton airport has caught serious attention.

‘Number One’ Challenge

The U.S. Defense Directive on China Task, established in February, described Beijing as the “number one pacing challenge” to Washington’s strategic pace. “China poses the greatest long-term challenge to the United States,” also concluded the Pentagon’s 2022 budget proposal.

The sensitive location of Canton Island underscores its strategic importance in the U.S.-China struggle for Pacific domination.

If Chinese military forces intrude on Kiribati and develop Canton Island as an army base, the small island, which is less than 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii and 4,300 miles from the U.S. West Coast, could become a thorn in the side of the U.S. Pacific fleet. The CCP could also exploit the geographic location to surveil the U.S. military. The tiny island could also be a direct threat to U.S. and allied forces in Guam.

If it evolves into a CCP military presence in the heart of the Pacific, such a facility would have almost zero chance of survival in a hot war. The economic benefits to Kiribati would be nothing compared to the dangers it could pose.

“It’s a civilian project but we are worried about the main intention of China,” said Tessie Lambourne, the leader of the main opposition party of Kiribati, SCMP reported. Worried about Beijing having a military purpose, she asked why the government had not clarified how CCP would fund the project: “We know that China’s intention is not purely to help developing countries like ours but to help us in a way that in the end will help them with their interests.”

Details on Beijing’s plans to renovate and expand this remote and worn airport have not been made known to the Kiribati public and opposition party. Under the guise of economic development and climate change adaptation, the project could provide Beijing with the equivalent of an immobile aircraft carrier capable of supporting the deployment of combat aircraft and a full range of military operations, including surveillance and potential combat operations.

The CCP’s Global Ambitions

Early in 2017, Beijing acquired its first overseas military base in Djibouti. To get the support of the host government, the CCP bought off the local elite through a strategic investment portfolio and diplomacy.

The CCP’s global expansion ambitions have also manifested in Indo-Pacific countries. For example, starting from 2020, the U.S. government has been aware of the CCP’s interest in establishing a military outpost at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base in the Gulf of Thailand.

Satellite imagery shows that construction at Ream Naval Base is progressing quickly. However, in June, when U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Ruth Sherman visited Phnom Penh, some U.S.-funded construction facilities had been demolished. Since then, U.S. military attachés in Cambodia were denied access to some regions of Ream Naval Base during Cambodian government-assisted observations of the base. The lack of transparency on the Cambodian side has heightened suspicions that the CCP is involved in upgrading the Ream base, probably enabling Beijing to project its power into the Indian Ocean.

Along with Cambodia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is also where Beijing seeks to establish a military base. Back in 2018, the UAE and the CCP signed a $300 million agreement to upgrade the cargo terminal of COSCO Shipping in the Khalifa port of Abu Dhabi. The cargo terminal is near the Al-Dhafra airbase, where 3,500 U.S. military personnel are stationed; and the port of Jebel Ali in Dubai, where the majority of visits by U.S. Navy ships occur outside the United States.

The establishment of a base in the UAE would greatly expand the presence of the CCP’s forces in and around maritime chokepoints, including the Strait of Hormuz and the southern entrance to the Red Sea. The UAE base could also become part of a chain of other potential CCP military bases in the Indian Ocean, including Pakistan and Burma.

In May, U.S. intelligence agencies monitored two CCP planes that unloaded unidentified cargo in the UAE, WSJ reported. Some U.S. officials believe the CCP intends to establish a naval base in the UAE. In addition, intelligence reports indicate that Beijing has discussed dispatching hundreds of military personnel to the UAE. A 2020 Pentagon report (pdf) on Chinese military expansion noted that the CCP is likely already considering increasing overseas military logistics facilities, and the UAE is one of the desiderate countries. Their suspected interactions might undermine the U.S. sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, and Washington is concerned that the UAE could share sensitive fighter technology with the CCP.

In early May, Stephen Townsend, the top general for U.S. Africa Command, warned about Beijing’s desire to build an important naval port on Africa’s Atlantic coast to accommodate submarines or aircraft carriers, increasing the threat to the U.S. military in the Atlantic. Townsend said the CCP is already reaching out to southern African countries from Mauritania to Namibia to build naval facilities. If realized, this plan would allow the CCP to provide base support for its naval forces in the Atlantic.

The CCP sets up barriers to U.S. global military strategy by developing overseas military bases with the excuse of economic and civilian construction, therefore the issue cannot be handled alone by the U.S. Department of Defense.

In the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East, Africa, and even the Arctic, the CCP’s global military base expansion is evident and showing signs of further growth. However, the essence of stopping the CCP’s global expansion ambitions is not a matter of confrontation over military strength but of influence over the local host governments. Weakening the host countries’ acceptance of the CCP building bases or breaking their military ties with the CCP is an area in which the United States could leverage resource advantages over the CCP.

Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia, a former PLA engineer, specialized in aviation equipment and engineering technology management. After retiring from military service, he has been following the world's development of military equipment.