Vanuatu, a string of more than 80 islands sitting between Fiji and New Caledonia, has previously backed Beijing’s position on the South China Sea. Home to about 250,000 people, the South Pacific nation has faced challenges including poverty and extreme weather events.
Vanuatu is less than 2500 kilometres from Sydney could provide access for China into the Pacific, as it is currently blocked further north by the “island chain” of the Philippines, Japan and Guam.
The Australian Government provided an estimated $69.8 million in total Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Vanuatu in 2017-18. This will include an estimated $41.9 million in bilateral funding to Vanuatu managed by DFAT. CARE and Oxfam Australia have been in Vanuatu, working with communities to build resilience to disasters and climate change shocks and increase women and girls’ involvement in community and national leadership.
Fairfax Media reported that there had been preliminary discussions between the Chinese and Vanuatu governments about a military build-up in the island nation.
Beijing and Vanuatu quickly denied the reports, but analysts said it was possible that China was building a facility to track spacecraft, adding that the facility had the potential to be used for intelligence gathering and other military purposes. The Chinese have established ports, power plant and other facilities in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Djibouti and later used them as military bases.
China has already financed a new wharf on the north island of Espiritu Santo, as well as an upgrade to the international airport in the capital of Port Vila, fueling speculation the superpower is laying the foundations for further influence in the region.
China’s aggressive efforts to step up its maritime presence have come under increasing scrutiny, and media reports that it may be seeking to build a military outpost there caused concern in Australia.
Such a move would challenge the influence of the US and its allies Australia and New Zealand, according to Asia-Pacific expert Bates Gill.
The Pacific nation’s foreign minister Ralph Regenvanu denied there had been any discussion of a base. “No one in the Vanuatu government has ever talked about a Chinese military base in Vanuatu of any sort,” he told the ABC.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said while China was investing in infrastructure around the world, it had to date only established one military base – in Djibouti in northern Africa.
“We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbours of ours,”Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Tuesday.
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 are operating where they needed to, said former US secretary of state John Kerry.
Notes: Military bases and potential military bases
Chinese – Sri Lanka, Gwadar, Maldives, Mauritius, Tanzania, Vanuatu, Spratly Islands, Woody Island, Hainan Island, Zhanjiang, Ningbo, Qingdao
USA – Djibouti, Keeling Island, Changi, Darwin, Guam, Okinawa, Busan, Yokosuka, Hawaii, Qatar
India – Agelega Island, Seychelles, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Andaman & Nicobar Island, Kochi, Mumbai, Vishakapatnam, Cam Ranh Bay
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