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Concerns as China in talks with Vanuatu about South Pacific military base

The Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has said she is not aware of any Chinese plans to establish a military base in Vanuatu.

Fairfax Media reported on Tuesday that China was eyeing a base in the Pacific nation. China has diplomatic relations with many Pacific nations and is a major backer of development projects in Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Tonga.

Fairfax reported there had been informal discussions between China and Vanuatu, but no formal offer, about a military buildup.

Bishop told the ABC she remained “confident that Australia is Vanuatu’s strategic partner of choice”.

“It is a fact that China is engaging in developing infrastructure and investment activity in places around the world, but to date there is only one military base that China has built, and that’s [in] Djibouti in northern Africa,” she said.

“We must remember that Vanuatu is a sovereign nation and its foreign and defence relations are a matter for Vanuatu. The government of Vanuatu has said there is no such [Chinese military] proposal.”

Bishop said Australian engagement with South Pacific nations was “one of our highest foreign policy priorities” and that Australia had partnered with China on development projects in the region, for example an anti-malaria project in Papua New Guinea.

The head of the national security college at the Australian National University, Prof Rory Medcalf, said any foreign power establishing a foothold in the South Pacific would represent “a long-term failure of Australian policy”.

“For the first time since the 1940s, a foreign power with the potential to put Australian interests at risk would have a military presence in the South Pacific,” he said.

“I think there’s no question that Australia needs to redouble its efforts to persuade Vanuatu and other Pacific island nations that Australia is and should remain their preferred security partner and development partner.

“Perhaps it’s time for New Zealand to get more worried about the implications of Chinese power in the South Pacific as well.”

Medcalf said a Chinese military base on Vanuatu would pose significant problems for Australian interests.

“I don’t think China would be doing this specifically or solely to harm Australian interests, but there would be harm to Australian interests as a major side-effect of this presence,” he said.

“[Vanuatu] would be useful for China if it got itself in a strategic confrontation with the US … to be able to outflank the US and the Japanese. It would allow them to have some forces positioned behind the US base in Guam and would allow China to monitor and patrol the South Pacific Ocean.”

Medcalf said China was increasingly seeking to exert influence in the South Pacific. He said establishing a military presence could be a sort of payoff for development aid.

“I think this is much more about China’s long-term ambitions than some sort of short-term reaction to anything the US has done,” he said.

“But what’s changed in the past 10 years is that China has become much more assertive about its interest internationally and it’s become much more willing to establish a security presence off its shores.”

Chinese activities in the Pacific have been increasingly viewed through a military lens since the US “pivot” to the region in 2009. The US has a series of bases and training locations – running from Busan in Korea to Darwin in the Northern Territory – that many analysts believe is designed to demonstrate an ability to isolate China and block shipping supply routes.

Prof Sam Bateman, a professional research fellow at the University of Wollongong’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security and a former Australian navy commodore, said Beijing and Washington had engaged in a series of active and reactive moves in the region since the pivot.

Bateman said Vanuatu would offer “some strategic advantages” for China, but that a military buildup in the country remained unlikely. He said China’s economic interest in the South Pacific was “really only fish”.

“I would be very surprised if we saw any development there military, security-wise in the near future,” he said.

Bateman said Chinese involvement in the South Pacific could upend the status quo, where Australia and New Zealand take a lead role in the Pacific Islands Forum.

“It would be interesting to see what would happen, for example, if China was to play a role in those institutions,” he said.

Vanuatu is an active part of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which supports New Caledonian independence from France. A referendum will be held in the Pacific country in November. Bateman said reports of the military buildup could potentially be Chinese posturing ahead of that vote.


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