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- Australian defense forces believe China has “expressed its interest” in increasing its military presence in Vanuatu, according to Australia’s 9News.
- The news comes just weeks after heavily denied reports that China wanted to turn a wharf it funded in the South Pacific nation into a naval base.
- An increasing Chinese presence in the Pacific would most likely raise tensions with Australia even further.
Senior levels of Australia’s defense force are said to believe China wants to increase its military presence in the South Pacific via the island nation of Vanuatu.
China “has certainly expressed its interest” in upping its military presence on Vanuatu, an 80-island archipelago 1,750 kilometers (1,090 miles) east of the Australian coast, a senior defense official told 9News. It’s unknown how far along those talks are or the extent of China’s presence.
Fairfax Media reported a few weeks ago that there had been discussions about about converting a China-funded wharf in Vanuatu into a potential Chinese navy base. But senior officials from Vanuatu, China, and Australia publicly denied the reports.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull even received an assurance from Vanuatu’s prime minister, Charlot Salwai, that he wouldn’t allow the wharf to become a military base.
“The most troubling implication for Australian interests is that a future naval or air base in Vanuatu would give China a foothold for operations to coerce Australia, outflank the US and its base on US territory at Guam, and collect intelligence in a regional security crisis,” Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, wrote in a Lowy Institute report.
China has been heavily investing in Pacific islands. From 2006 to 2016, Beijing funded 218 projects with aid and concessional loans amounting to $1.7 billion.
Australia has been closely watching the advances, with countries that default on these loans being forced to hand ownership of resources over to the Chinese government or state-owned enterprises.
“The maintenance of peace and stability in the Pacific is of utmost importance to us,” Turnbull recently said. “We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbors of ours.”
But ties between China and Australia remain strained.
Last year, Turnbull proposed legislation to target and broaden the definition of foreign interference, after a wave of claims regarding China’s influence in political campaigns in Australia. The laws have been derided in China, and since then the two countries have been sparring over strained diplomatic relations.
And days ago reports emerged that the Chinese navy “challenged” Australian warships in the South China Sea earlier this month.