China, Vanuatu deny military base plan

The Australian national flag flies next to the Chinese national flag in front of the giant portrait of former Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing

While China is already said to be in talks with Pakistan to acquire the latter's military base near the Chabahar port in Iran, it looks like Beijing also wants to spread its wings in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Though no formal proposal has been brought forward to the government of Vanuatu, it is believed Beijing's plans could become a reality.

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 goal is to host cruise ships, it had the potential to service naval vessels as well. Beijing describes it as a logistics facility.

China had been more engaged with the Pacific recently and its naval ships visited Vanuatu in 2017, but those sorts of visits were normal for all nations to conduct, Ms Bishop said.

But Vanuatu's high commissioner in Canberra, Kalfau Kaloris, was quoted as saying his country's foreign ministry was "not aware" of China's determination to build a permanent presence on the island.

Vanuatu, a former British-French colony previously known as the New Hebrides, housed a large USA military base during World War Two aimed at helping stem the advance of the Japanese army through the Pacific towards Australia, 2,000 km (1,200 miles) to the west.

Vanuatu is one of few countries that has backed China's position on the disputed South China Sea.

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

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".

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 U.S. forces operating where they needed to, he said.

The Lowy Institute said China had contributed more than $2.3 billion in aid to the Pacific since 2006.

"We'd like to know what we're dealing with before we start hypothesising about how we're going to react".

"China has to right to seek bases as its expands its naval deployments, and it is has few options beyond smaller and poorer nations", he said.

According to Professor Hamilton, China wants to break Australia away from its alliance with the United States, but a base in the Pacific would actually make Australia more reluctant to threaten that alliance.

China has set a pattern in the Indian Ocean whereby it builds infrastructure paid for by concessional Chinese loans which the local government can not repay.

However, Vanuatu's Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu denied the reports this morning. Chen Ke, a spokesman for the ambassador to Vanuatu, also explained that China's presence in the Pacific was purely for humanitarian purposes and also spoke about a planned disaster response exercise between New Zealand, Vanuatu and China.

Early a year ago, Beijing donated 14 military vehicles to Vanuatu.

Six other Pacific countries recognise self-ruled Taiwan, which China sees as part of its territory.

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