Is Kiribati the new Cuba? How tiny island nation became center of new Cold War between US and China

Beijing has come up with plans to upgrade an airstip and bridge on one of the remote islands of Kiribati, a country that has leaned towards China in recent times, dumping relations with Taiwan


                            Is Kiribati the new Cuba? How tiny island nation became center of new Cold War between US and China
President Joe Biden and Kiribati President Taneti Maamau with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (Getty Images)

China has grown from strength to strength when it comes to its military power and has not hesitated to challenge US supremacy. When America’s navy was badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic last year, Beijing flexed its military muscles in the adjoining waters. In April 2020, China’s first aircraft carrier entered the disputed waters in the Pacific Ocean and its state-run media praised the event while appearing to mock the US struggle against it. 

China’s ambitious military plans have not stopped there. Reuters came up with a report last week in which it cited US lawmakers who said that Beijing has now drawn up plans to upgrade an airstrip and bridge on Kanton (also Canton), one of the remote islands of Kiribati (area of only 811 square kilometers) in the central Pacific Ocean which is about 3,000 kilometers from the US territory of Hawaii. According to the lawmakers, the base hosted military aircraft during the Second World War. “The plans, which have not been made public, involve construction on the tiny island of Kanton (also spelled Canton), a coral atoll strategically located midway between Asia and the Americas,” the report added.

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Kiribati’s local politics has also been stirred up by the news. Its opposition leader Tessie Lambourne expressed to Reuters her worry over the project and wanted to know whether it is part of China’s mega Belt and Road Initiative. “The government hasn’t shared the cost and other details other than it’s a feasibility study for the rehabilitation of the runway and bridge,” she said. “The opposition will be seeking more information from government in due course.”

President Taneti Maamau of Kiribati (3rd-L) listens as Premier Li Keqiang of China (3rd-R) speaks during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People on January. 6, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Getty Images)

Kiribati politics has recently found itself polarized over the question of supporting China. Pro-China President Taneti Maamau won an aggressively fought re-election battle last year and it reaffirmed the island nation’s shift from Taiwan to China. In September 2019, Kiribati restored relations with China, which had broken off its ties with the island-state after it established relations with Taiwan in 2003. It cut off ties with Taiwan the same month and just days after the Solomon Islands did the same. Maamau had said then in an official communique with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that his country has much to learn and gain from China and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations is just the beginning.

US has close relations with Kiribati

The Reuters report said establishments in the US were yet to respond to the development at the time of publishing the report, but it would certainly make the policy-makers in Washington feel less comfortable. Taiwan has already accused China of bribing Kiribati with aircraft and ferries to win its loyalty. For Washington, too, the Kiribati policy would face challenging days ahead. US relationship with Kiribati was formalized under a friendship treaty of 1979 and full diplomatic relations were established the next year (Kiribati’s diplomatic relationship with China was also established in 1980 before the break-up in 2003) after the island nation gained independence from the British.

Tessie Lambourne (Taiwan Presidential Office/Wikimedia Commons)

As per the US state department, the US and Kiribati “work closely together on a broad range of issues, from strengthening regional security, to promoting education and climate resilience, to protecting fisheries and food and water security”. Kiribati’s law-enforcement agencies cooperate with the US Navy and US Coast Guard and they help the island-nation to carry out search and rescue operations besides fisheries protection operations in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In the past, the US military has used airstrips in Kiribati to back various operations in the Pacific, including the transit of planes.

How China can threaten US security in the Pacific

If China indeed increases its influence on Kiribati, then the US relationship with Kiribati will be threatened. If the Chinese go to the extent of deploying military personnel either permanently or semi-permanently in Kiribati, friction will be more than obvious. In recent years, China has set up a military base in Djibouti in eastern Africa, which is not too far from a major American military hub and the stage is already set up for a potential conflict. In 2018, the US alleged that Chinese personnel injured members of the crew of a US C-130 Hercules transport plane by targeting them with a laser.

Other US allies will also feel the pinch

The location of the airstrip that China is eyeing to upgrade in order to boost its geopolitical reach will also put Washington’s allies like Australia and New Zealand under challenge. According to a report in The Drive, the airstrip could be used for carrying out surveillance flights, including those by long-endured unmanned aircraft, which would extend Beijing’s reach towards Hawaii on one hand and Australia and New Zealand on 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 report added.

Reuters cited the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Beijing has called the think tank anti-China) saying in the recent past that the Chinese facilities in Kiribati would be made in a way so that all major sea lanes between North America and Australia and New Zealand could be brought under surveillance. The news outlet even quoted an individual who was only identified as an advisor to Pacific governments as calling Kiribati “a fixed aircraft carrier”.

How else China can use Kiribati

China could add to the military component in its Kiribati base, including boosting anti-access and area-denial capabilities through deployment of missiles and adding command and control communication nodes, the Drive added. “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,” The Drive added. 

But besides the military gains, China’s foothold in Kiribati will also give the Asian power access to the island nation’s EEZ which includes an area of over 1.35 million square miles and some of the most fertile fishing grounds in the Pacific region. China also has an old space-tracking station based in Kiribati and former Taiwanese envoy to China feared following the restoration of Kiribati-China relations that Beijing could restart using it “at any time”. China’s contribution towards developing infrastructure in Kiribati, something it has done in other countries in the region, could also add more to Washington’s worry as those infrastructure projects could also be used for military purpose when needed. Last year, preparations were found to be underway for a China-backed expansion at the Reem Naval Base in Cambodia, something the US fears will be used to host Chinese military assets in days to come.

Chinese patrol ship "Haixun 31" of Maritime Safety Administration at sea (Getty Images)

Moreover, the fact that Lambourne wanted to know whether China’s plans in Kiribati are part of its BRI is also significant. China unveiled the BRI in 2013 as a mega global infrastructure improvement bid that is expected to be beneficial for both China and its international allies. While the project is being seen as Beijing’s soft economic approach to increase its international influence, there are also charges that the effort leads to a form of “debt-trap diplomacy” in which China offers loans to countries for projects and then use it to promote its own geopolitical interests. 

Is Kiribati the new Cuba?

China’s entry into Kiribati with ambitious goals to challenge the US will remind one of the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960s that had almost pushed the world to the brink of a nuclear face-off between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets matched America’s deployment of missiles in Italy and Turkey by counter-deploying similar missiles in Cuba, located very close to the US territory. The incident remained a defining moment in the US national security and nuclear war preparation and is considered the closest the Cold War came to turn into a full-fledged hot war between two nuclear powers.

Could Kiribati see another similar crisis in this new Cold War between the US and China?