Vanuatu denies Chinese approach to set up military base

Pacific nation’s foreign minister says nobody in his government has talked about the idea, which was reported in the Australian media

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 3:06pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 4:10pm

Vanuatu’s foreign minister has denied a media report that China wanted to establish a permanent military presence on the Pacific island nation, easing fears about Beijing’s rising assertiveness.

Australia’s Fairfax Media, citing unnamed sources, reported that preliminary discussions to locate a full military base on Vanuatu had been held.

The prospect of a Chinese military outpost so close to Australia has been discussed at the highest levels in Canberra and Washington, Fairfax said.

But today Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu rejected the report.

“No one in the Vanuatu government has ever talked about a Chinese military base in Vanuatu of any sort,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“We are a non-aligned country. We are not interested in militarisation, we are just not interested in any sort of military base in our country.” 

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Fairfax reported that Chinese naval ships would dock to be serviced, refuelled and restocked at a Vanuatu port, with the agreement eventually leading to a full military base.

“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.

Vanuatu, about 2,000km (1,200 miles) northeast of Australia, was home to a US Navy base during the second world war that helped beat back the Japanese army as it advanced through the Pacific.

Any future naval or airbase in Vanuatu would “give China a foothold for operations to coerce Australia, outflank the US and its base on US territory at Guam, and collect intelligence in a regional security crisis”, Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said in a report for the Lowy Institute think tank in Sydney.

China opened its first overseas military base in August in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Beijing describes it as a logistics facility.

Djibouti’s position on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean has fuelled concerns in India that it will become another of China’s “string of pearls” military alliances and assets ringing India, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

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China has also become increasingly active in the South Pacific, undertaking several infrastructure projects and providing aid and financing to small, developing island nations in the region.

That has stoked fears that Australia’s long-time influence in the region is being eroded.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had earlier acknowledged heightened Chinese interest in the Pacific.

“It is a fact that China is engaging in infrastructure investment activities around the world,” she told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

“I remain confident that Australia is Vanuatu’s strategic partner of choice,” she said.

China has also faced criticism over its activities in the disputed South China Sea, where it has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and airstrips.