Australia is warning Vanuatu against allowing China to build a military base in the South Pacific archipelago.
An Australian newspaper has reported that Vanuatu and China have been in preliminary talks about establishing a military base in the Pacific Island nation. Vanuatu’s government, however, said the claims were false, and that it was not interested in militarization or hosting foreign military bases.
But the press reports did provoke a reaction at the highest levels of the Australian administration.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said any foreign bases in the Pacific would be unwelcome.
“We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbors of ours. We put a great effort into the Pacific islands region. This is particularly important that we maintain the Pacific, as its name suggests, a peaceful region.”
Last year, Chinese ships visited Vanuatu as part of a broader regional mission, but Australian officials said those visits were part of normal diplomatic practices.
Analysts believe that any move by the Chinese military to build a base in Vanuatu, which is less than 2,000 kilometers from Australia, would be part of Beijing’s attempts to counter U.S. power in the region.
Jonathan Holslag, co-founder of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, says Beijing has long-term plans in the region.
“China has the intention by 2025 to become a resident power in the western Pacific by [means] of its navy, and by 2050 to essentially overtake the United States as an important military player in that region.”
Western countries are closely watching China's military expansion after it established its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa last year. China maintains the base is for peacekeeping missions in Africa.
Academics estimate China had contributed more than $1.7 billion in aid to the Pacific since 2006. Vanuatu, which has a population of just 270,000 people, has backed China's position on the disputed South China Sea.
In January, Australia accused China of so-called checkbook diplomacy in the region by funding what Canberra said were “useless” infrastructure projects across the South Pacific. In response, China lodged a formal diplomatic protest.