- Thomson Reuters
- China reportedly discussed setting up a military presence in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.
- Both countries denied the report, and a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called it “fake news.”
- The US and its partners are eyeing China’s moves in the region warily.
China and Vanuatu discussed establishing a Chinese military presence in the Pacific island nation, The Sydney Morning Herald reports, citing several sources. Australian defense officials said Beijing asked Vanuatu to host a port or allow port visits by naval vessels, according to Nine News.
Vanuatu adamantly denied the reports, but a potential Chinese military presence in that area of the South Pacific has long been a source of concern for Australia, the US, and their partners in the region, who are eyeing China’s expansion warily.
No formal proposals have been made by the Chinese government, according to The Herald, citing sources saying any Chinese military presence in Vanuatu would likely develop incrementally, possibly starting with a deal allowing routine visits by Chinese naval ships.
“No one in the Vanuatu government has ever talked about a Chinese military base in Vanuatu of any sort,” Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “We are a nonaligned country. We are not interested in militarization. We are just not interested in any sort of military base in our country.”
China’s Defense Ministry said Fairfax Media’s report “completely did not accord with the facts,” and a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman referred to the report as “fake news.”
- Google Maps/Christopher Woody
Vanuatu is made up of more than 80 islands between Fiji and New Caledonia, located about 1,200 miles from Australia’s northeast coast, and it hosted a strategically located US Navy base during World War II.
“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, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said in a Lowy Institute report.
“We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific Island countries and neighbors of ours,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said. Australia’s opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman called such a military presence a potential “game changer for the region and for Australia.”
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was in Vanuatu with Prince Charles over the weekend – a diplomatic visit meant to underscore the importance of the commonwealth countries’ emphasis on a free and open international system, according to Fairfax Media.
Bishop said she was unaware of any Chinese military designs on Vanuatu. She noted China was more active in the region, citing Chinese naval visits to Vanuatu in 2017, “but these sorts of visits are normal,” she told Australian media.
- Steve Parsons/Pool via Reuters
“It is a fact that China is engaging in infrastructure investment activities around the world,” Bishop told Australian Broadcasting Corp. “I remain confident that Australia is Vanuatu’s strategic partner of choice.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she could not comment on the validity of the report, but told AFP that “we of course keep a watching eye on activity within the Pacific and that New Zealand is opposed to the militarization of the Pacific generally.”
China putting billions into the Pacific
Beijing has already agreed to hundreds of millions of dollars in development funds to the island nation, which is home to about 270,000 people.
China has also agreed to fund a new wharf on the northern island of Espiritu Santo, close to an international airport that Beijing is also helping overhaul.
The wharf deal “raised eyebrows in defense, intelligence, and diplomatic circles” in Australia because while the facility is ostensibly for docking cruise ships, it could also host naval vessels, Johnathan Pryke, a Pacific Islands expert at the Lowy Institute, told The Herald, which reported that senior members of China’s army want to quickly set up a base in Vanuatu.
China has also agreed to build a new official residence for Vanuatu’s prime minister, a new Finance Ministry building, and an extension for the country’s Foreign Ministry. It ahs already funded Vanuatu’s parliamentary building, a 1,000-seat convention center, and a major stadium and is finishing work on a school that will reportedly be the biggest education facility in the South Pacific.
Beijing committed more than $1.7 billion in aid to 218 projects in the Pacific between 2006 and 2016, according to the Lowy Institute.
- REUTERS/Kris Paras
China “is beginning to shift this long-standing regional dynamic in ways that are raising concern in Canberra and in other regional capitals,” Bates Gill, an Asia-Pacific expert at Sydney’s Macquarie University, told the BBC.
China has expanded its presence in the Pacific and Indian oceans, building military facilities on a number of reefs and manmade islands in the South China Sea. Beijing has made expansive claims over the sea, which have been backed by Vanuatu.
The US and Australia have compared China’s overtures in the South Pacific to its moves in the Indian Ocean, where Beijing agreed to develop port facilities and other infrastructure in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar, the Maldives, and other countries – all of which is of particular concern for India.
A Chinese military base in Djibouti, which features a port, aircraft hangers, and accommodations for up to 10,000 troops, was Beijing’s first overseas military outpost (though Beijing refers to it a logistics facility.)
Chinese deals in the India Ocean region follow a trend that has been called “debt-trap diplomacy,” in which Beijing funds projects in a poorer country and uses that leverage for get more advantageous relations or more access.
Earlier this year, US Navy Secretary Richard Spencer referred to such deals as “weaponizing capital.” China holds almost half of Vanuatu’s $440 million in foreign debt, according to The Morning Herald.