China-backed airstrip upgrade in Kiribati fuels political divisions

Sun Online Desk

22nd May, 2021 06:46:24 PM printer

China-backed airstrip upgrade in Kiribati fuels political divisions

A China-backed plan to upgrade an airstrip in Kiribati has led to intense political divisions in the Pacific Island nation, with several opposition figures questioning Beijing's intentions and the purpose of the project.

The revamp comes amid heightened scrutiny of Beijing's outreach efforts to strategically located Pacific Island nations, which are entangled in a growing competition for influence between China and the US and its Pacific allies, reported South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Kiribati's 33 islands, scattered around resource-rich waters, make up one of the world's largest exclusive economic zones. The government had insisted that the planned upgrade of facilities on the island of Kanton is for purely civil purposes and aim to boost transport links and tourism.

Despite China's foreign ministry saying that it was involved in the project at the request of the Kiribati government, opposition figures are not satisfied, such as Tessie Lambourne, the leader of the main opposition party Boutokaan Kiribati Moa.

"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," she said.

Expressing concern about China's main intentions, Lambourne said that Beijing may have military uses in mind for the facilities down the track or seek to exploit the country's rich fishing stocks.

"If China is going to fund the construction phase of the project, we want to know if it is going to give us a loan to finance this project or give us a grant," she added.

SCMP reported that Kiribati President Taneti Maamau, who won re-election last year campaigning on closer ties with China, has said the project has yet to progress beyond a Beijing-funded feasibility study, which is on hold due to travel restrictions in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2019, Maamau had severed relations with Taiwan to establish ties with Beijing, resulting in a split in the ruling Tobwaan Kiribati Party. The move drew protests from Washington, which is a major diplomatic backer of Taiwan.

In its statement, the Chinese foreign ministry said its cooperation with Kiribati and Pacific Island countries was based on mutual benefit with assistance provided "without any political conditions".

The plans have also attracted notice in Australia, a key US ally that has long viewed the Pacific Islands as part of its strategic backyard.

Last week, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd said China's backing of the airstrip was an example of how Canberra had "rolled out the red carpet for Beijing" through cuts to its aid budget, reported SCMP.

"All strategic infrastructure investments made by China in the Pacific will be closely monitored by Australia," said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific programme at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.

Kiribati has attracted attention in recent years as the site of geopolitical rivalries playing out in the Pacific. (ANI)


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