China’s mystery ‘military base’ in Vanuatu could be a space tracking station

Beijing and South Pacific island nation deny claims they are discussing plan to build a naval base, but experts point out location is ideal for lunar rocket tests

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 11:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2018, 3:44am

Beijing could be planning to set up a space tracking station in Vanuatu, Chinese military experts said on Tuesday, despite denials from both sides that a permanent military base in the South Pacific island state was in the offing.

China’s assertive efforts to step up its maritime presence have come under increasing scrutiny, and media reports that it may be seeking to build a military outpost there caused concern in Australia.

The reports were quickly denied by Beijing and Vanuatu, but analysts said it was possible that China was building a facility to track spacecraft, adding that the facility had the potential to be used for intelligence gathering and other military purposes.

Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said Vanuatu would not be suitable for a military base, but China was planning to test more rockets – many of which come down in the sparsely populated South Pacific – and would need a monitoring and control station in the region.

Beijing is working on a new generation of rockets designed to take its astronauts to the moon and beyond.

The Long March 9 missiles are expected to start testing in the next decade in preparation for a possible lunar mission in the 2030s.

“China needs a space control station in the South Pacific because it is going to launch more heavy rockets,” Zhou said.

“The speculation is understandable because whatever projects China sets up overseas now, people will imagine it is going to be a military base, especially since space projects are carried out by the Chinese military.”

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On Tuesday the Chinese foreign ministry insisted that the report by Sydney-based Fairfax Media, which cited an unnamed source as saying that preliminary discussions had been held about building a military base, was “completely out of line with the facts”.

Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu also insisted that no one in the country “has ever talked about a Chinese military base”.

“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,” he said.

Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Dong said it would be possible for Beijing to set up a space tracking centre in Vanuatu, which is less than 2,000km (1,240 miles) from Australia. He said the facility would have the potential to be turned into a military “intelligence platform” especially due to its vicinity to Australia and New Zealand, both close allies of the United States.

A space tracking or satellite telemetry station would not exclude the possibility of building other facilities there although the project would require Vanuatu’s agreement, Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said.

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“It’s possible to build a surveillance facility, and is certainly within Beijing’s financial and technical means to do so. The only hurdles are political,” he said.

“If the facility has a dual use, both civilian and military, then the picture becomes murky. This will often allow a project to slip through strict scrutiny.”

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop Australia said on Tuesday she remained “confident that Australia is Vanuatu’s strategic partner of choice”.

But China has been providing funding for the nation of 270,000 people to build new civic buildings, a wharf and airport upgrades.

Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said that 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”.

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Highlighting Beijing’s long-term maritime ambitions in the Asia-Pacific, a Beijing-based military expert, who requested anonymity, said the establishment of a dual-use station in Vanuatu would help China to counter the quadrilateral alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India.

“The US has also set up many space stations in the region,” he said, adding that Beijing would also explore the possibility of setting up more space centres in the region.

Koh argued that Beijing had long had a strategic interest in that part of the Pacific.

“It would not be strange, therefore, to see such a station in Vanuatu, or other neighbouring South Pacific island states for that matter, operating in conjunction with the research and space tracking ships that frequent the region,” he said.

Even if Beijing was installing specialised military surveillance equipment, “building such dual-use facilities would still allow it to gain certain strategic military leverage concerning ‘domain awareness’ in the area”, he said.

Additional reporting by Reuters