China is reportedly in talks with Vanuatu about establishing a South Pacific military base, in a strategic move that would significantly alter the balance of power in the region.
Fairfax Media is reporting that preliminary discussions are underway between the Chinese and Vanuatu governments about establishing a permanent military base on the island nation.
It is likely the development would be gradual, starting with an agreement that would allow ships from China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) to dock at will, refuel and be serviced.
China has already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the nation, and just last week agreed to invest in a new home for Prime Minister Charlot Salwai, as well as a new building for the Ministry of Finance and an extension at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But the biggest indicator that the Xi Jinping-led superpower is ramping up its ambitions for the PLA Navy in the region (approximately 2000 kilometres off Australia’s east coast) is a major wharf that China is financing alongside an international airport it is also helping Vanuatu upgrade.
The wharf — which is located on Vanuatu’s largest and most northern island of Espiritu Santo — has caught the attention of intelligence and security officials in Canberra as it has been declared a port for cruise ships but has the potential to service naval ships as well.
Kalfau Kaloris, Vanuatu’s high commissioner in Canberra, was quoted as saying his country’s foreign ministry was “not aware” of China’s determination to build a permanent presence on the island.
Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop told the ABC, she was “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.”
But sources in Washington believe the developments present an imminent threat to Australia.
Zack Cooper, former White House and Pentagon official, said he expects China to set up multiple military bases in the Pacific if it is not kept in check mainly by Australia.
“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,” he said.
Charles Edel, a former adviser to former US secretary of state John Kerry, added China could potentially be looking to cut off the US Navy’s access to the region.
“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,” he said.
“Chinese presence in Vanuatu, while today about fishing access and commercial trade, tomorrow could represent a threat to Australia’s northern approaches.”