China has approached Vanuatu about building a permanent military base on its territory.
There have been preliminary discussions between the Chinese and Vanuatu governments about a military build-up.
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 United States. It would be the first overseas base China has established in the Pacific, and only its second in the world, Fairfax Media reports.
Australian intelligence and security figures, along with their partners in the United States and New Zealand, have been watching with concern as Beijing deepens its influence with Pacific island governments through infrastructure building and loans.
Multiple sources said Beijing’s military ambition in Vanuatu would likely be realised incrementally, possibly beginning with an access agreement that would allow Chinese naval ships to dock routinely and be serviced, refuelled and restocked. This arrangement could then be built on.
Vanuatu’s high commissioner in Canberra, Kalfau Kaloris, said his country’s Foreign Ministry was “not aware of any such proposal”
One of the most substantial projects funded by Chinese money is a major new wharf on the north island of Espiritu Santo. Jonathan Pryke, a Pacific islands expert with the Lowy Institute, said the Luganville wharf had “raised eyebrows in defence, intelligence and diplomatic circles” in Canberra because while its stated purpose is to host cruise ships, it had the potential to service naval vessels as well.
Fairfax Media understands there are senior figures within China’s People’s Liberation Army who would like to move quickly to establish a proper base on Vanuatu.
Vanuatu’s high commissioner in Canberra, Kalfau Kaloris, said his country’s Foreign Ministry was “not aware of any such proposal”.
A spokeswoman for the Chinese embassy in Canberra declined to comment.
‘Tonga has also been mentioned in government circles as a possible site for a Chinese base, though recent discussion has centred around the intense efforts China has been putting into Vanuatu’
Comparisons have been made in Canberra and Washington to methods China has used in the Indian Ocean, where it has recently established its first military base in the African nation of Djibouti and is reportedly considering military facilities in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The Djibouti base features a port, helicopter base, hangars and accommodation for up to 10,000 troops.
Tonga has also been mentioned in government circles as a possible site for a Chinese base, though recent discussion has centred around the intense efforts China has been putting into Vanuatu.
Defence experts said a military base in Vanuatu, which would likely be followed by bases elsewhere, would allow the PLA to challenge the US’s post-war dominance of the Pacific, which is strongly supported by Australia and has been seen as a cornerstone of Australia’s security.
“If it turns out there are one or more Chinese bases … what it has the ability to do is challenge, and make much more challenging, American access into the region,” said Charles Edel, a former adviser to former US secretary of state John Kerry.
“Chinese presence in Vanuatu, while today about fishing access and commercial trade, tomorrow could represent a threat to Australia’s northern approaches.”
‘China reportedly accounts for nearly half of Vanuatu’s $440 million foreign debt’
Such a Chinese presence would make the seas “more crowded” for the Royal Australian Navy, though professional forces could manage this safely and it would not stop Australian or US forces operating where they needed to, he said.
He added that access to plentiful fisheries to feed China’s fast-rising demand for protein were likely one reason for consolidating its influence in the South Pacific.
Zack Cooper, a former White House and Pentagon official now at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said he had expected China to establish bases in the Pacific and predicted more to follow.
Dr Cooper said with the US focused on north Asia, Washington would expect Australia to stop the South Pacific from sliding too deeply into Beijing’s hands.
“I think it is important that Australia appreciate that China is far away but Chinese activity is definitely affecting Australia in a much more proximate way.”
China reportedly accounts for nearly half of Vanuatu’s $440 million foreign debt.