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Malcolm Turnbull courts Pacific leaders amid China push

Malcolm Turnbull used talks in London overnight to reassure Pacific Island leaders – including the Prime Minister of Vanuatu – of Australia's reliability as a partner following revelations of preliminary discussions with China to establish a military base on Vanuatu.

Turnbull, who said last week that any such move would be a direct threat to regional peace and stability, expressed such views to Vanuatu's Prime Minister Charlot Salwai.

Salwai assured Turnbull he had no plans of allowing China to establish a military footprint in his country.

“I rule out, I rule out," he said after the meeting.

“Vanuatu was never dreaming to become a military base one day. It is not in our culture, it is not in our tradition.”

Amid concerns about China using soft diplomacy to spread its influence in the region, Turnbull also had a meeting upon arrival in London Wednesday with his Solomon Islands counterpart Rick Houenipwela, and Fiji's Prime Minister and Cop23 President Frank Bainimarama.

Last week, in a bid to counter China, Australia sent a high-level delegation to the Solomon Islands to confirm its commitment to build an undersea internet cable between the two countries. The project was originally going to be installed by Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei.

Turnbull reassured Houenipwela that Australia would fund the cable.

China's use of soft diplomacy measures such as infrastructure building and loans to increase its influence in the Asia-Pacific is of growing concern to Australia and her allies and is a significant item of discussion at this week's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London.

With 11 of the 15 Pacific Island Forum nations being members of the Commonwealth, efforts being made to counter Chinese influence also include persuading Britain to redirect more of its aid money to the Asia-Pacific post Brexit, and to push for former French Pacific colonies to become Commonwealth members and give Paris a greater stake in the region.

Salwai noted that a port built in his country with a loan by China and which sparked concerns about it being used one day for military purposes, was cheaper than a separate port the Japanese funded.

“We don't invest in a project that doesn't have a return,” he said.

He said the wharf funded by the Japanese was “more expensive than the one we got the loan from China”.

“The one in Port Vila, it’s more expensive and was built from a concessional loan from Japan.”

Speaking in London ahead of Turnbull's arrival, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confirmed that Britain was amenable to boosting its presence in the Pacific via its aid budget, once its exit from the European Union was finalised.

Bishop said once Brexit was complete, British aid would no longer be directed through the EU through a collective mechanism and London could better use its aid budget to pursue strategic interests.

“Now that the UK is leaving the European Union, we see it as a great opportunity for the UK and its aid budget to be focused elsewhere obviously in accordance with its national interest and its priorities,” she said.

“I think you will find Britain is resetting its engagement in the Pacific and we certainly welcome it.”

Britain spends more on foreign aid as a percentage of its grosss national income than does Australia, which has made swingeing cuts to the aid budget in recent years. But Bishop said those cuts had not come at the expense of Australia's strategic interests in the region.

“As far as Australia is concerned, we deliver an aid budget which is affordable, that is targeted and the majority of our aid is invested in the Pacific and will continue to be so while ever I am the Foreign Minister and I made this a priority when I became Foreign Minister five years ago,” she said.

In February in Washington DC, Turnbull and US President Donald Trump discussed a proposal for Australia, the US, Japan and India to fund an infrastructure initiative to rival China's US$1 trillion-plus Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to spread influence in the region and beyond.

On Tuesday, 27 of the 28 national EU ambassadors to Beijing compiled a report that sharply criticises China's project, denouncing it as designed to hamper free trade and put Chinese companies at an advantage. Only Hungary demurred. Turnbull is expected to discuss the issue with German Chancellor Angela Merkel next week in Germany.

After the meetings, Turnbull discussed the Russian threat with the Prime Ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Britain. The four countries plus the US comprise the Five Eyes security and intelligence alliance.

Last week, Turnbull expressed alarm at a report by Fairfax Media of preliminary discussions between the Chinese and Vanuatu governments about a military build-up in the island nation.

While no formal proposals have been put to Vanuatu's government, senior security officials believe Beijing's plans could culminate in a full military base. The prospect of a Chinese military outpost so close to Australia has been discussed at the highest levels in Canberra and Washington.

A base less than 2000 kilometres from the Australian coast would allow China to project military power into the Pacific Ocean and upend the long-standing strategic balance in the region, potentially increasing the risk of confrontation between China and the US. It would be the first overseas base China has established in the Pacific, and only it’s second in the world.

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