ALARM bells rang through Australia yesterday over reports China was negotiating a military base less than 2000 kilometres from our border.
China and Vanuatu have both denied the Fairfax report, which claimed Beijing was eyeing a military base in the island nation, with global ramifications.
“No one in the Vanuatu government has ever talked about a Chinese military base in Vanuatu of any sort,” Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu told the ABC.
“We are a non-aligned country. We are not interested in militarisation.”
The move prompted fears in Australia over Beijing’s aims for greater military influence in the South Pacific region.
But Beijing’s economic influence in Vanuatu remains undeniable, with China responsible for almost half of the island nation’s foreign debt.
CHINA EXERTS INFLUENCE IN VANUATU
China’s exertion of influence in Vanuatu is well-documented.
According to local reports, China accounts for almost half of the country’s $440 million debt.
Earlier this year, it was reported that hundreds of millions of dollars being lent to South Pacific nations had seen through island nations struggling with debt repayment.
According to the Lowy Institute, China transferred at least $2.2 billion to Pacific nations between 2006 and 2016.
Vanuatu has been forced to establish a debt management unit to deal with investments on the island, The Australian reported in January.
From the island nation’s new Prime Minister’s Office — an $11.8 million gift from Beijing — to new infrastructure projects causing major financial pain, the Chinese government has given hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and loans to Vanuatu’s government.
This is nothing new for China. Security experts have previously told news.com.au China targets poor countries and employs a “debt-trap strategy”, by getting them hooked on debts they can’t pay back, which allows them to grab territory or create ports instead.
We’ve already seen this happen with numerous countries including Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos and Djibuoti — the one country where China has a confirmed military base.
The idea is to use the smaller countries’ strategic locations or resources, or secure their support in diplomatic affairs when needed.
Two years years ago Vanuatu became the first country in the Pacific to publicly pledge its “full understanding and support” for Beijing’s position over the disputed South China Sea.
Tonga is also heavily indebted to China, with 60 per cent of its total foreign debt owed to the Chinese government.
AUSTRALIA RESPONDS TO MILITARY CLAIMS
Over the past three decades, Australian governments have made it clear that a Chinese military base in Vanuatu would reflect a long-term failing in Australian policy.
Yesterday, Australian defence expert Dr Adam Lockyer told news.com.au that “Canberra will be panicking” if the reports are true, with this development certain to be reflected in our next Defence White Paper.
Malcolm Turnbull reiterated that Australia would not accept military plans for a foreign power in the Pacific.
“The maintenance of peace and stability in the Pacific is of utmost importance to us, to Australia — it’s one of the key priorities of the foreign policy white paper,” the Prime Minister told reporters.
“We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbours of ours.”
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has rejected the reports. “I’m not aware of a military offer being made by China to Vanuatu,” she told ABC radio on Tuesday.
“We have very good relationships with Vanuatu and I remain confident that Australia is Vanuatu’s strategic partner of choice.
“I’m aware China is more engaged in the Pacific, Chinese vessels visited Vanuatu last year as part of a broader visit to the region, but these visits are normal for neighbours around the world.”
Minister for Defence Industry Christopher Pyne reiterated that Australia “takes the South Pacific very seriously”, and has a “significant presence” in the region.
“We would take very seriously any attempt to establish a military base in Vanuatu, but I would point out the government of Vanuatu says they’ve had no such approach and therefore it’s rather a moot point,” he said on his radio show this morning.
Likewise New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her country will “keep a watching eye on activity within the Pacific”, adding that the nation is “opposed to the militarisation of the Pacific generally”.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang dismissed the report as “fake news” in a press conference.
“You should have noticed Vanuatu’s foreign ministry already cleared the record,” he said.
Macquarie University seniorlecturer Adam Lockyer, who specialises in security studies, told news.com.au that a Chinese military post in Vanuatu would be a “massive deal” for Australia.
“As soon as you have that, Australia is vulnerable to military attacks and skyrockets,” he warned.
He said that, while it shouldn’t necessarily be taken as an attack on Australia, it does send a clear message to us to stop “standing up” to foreign influence.