A senior Vanuatu government adviser concurred: “That conversation was never on the table.” The adviser claimed detailed knowledge of relevant matters in two key ministries and insisted that the topic was never even hinted at. They went on to suggest that the source of the Fairfax story was not the government of Vanuatu.
Fairfax reported there had been informal discussions between China and Vanuatu, but no formal offer, about a military buildup. China has diplomatic relations with many Pacific nations and is a major backer of development projects in Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Tonga.
The Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, told the ABC on Tuesday morning she remained “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.”
Chen insisted that China’s naval presence in the Pacific islands was humanitarian in nature. He cited an upcoming joint disaster response exercise between New Zealand, Vanuatu and China.
Chen said the next scheduled Chinese naval visit to Vanuatu would be in September, when the full-service Chinese naval hospital ship Peace Ark will carry out on a humanitarian visit. The ship contains equipment and facilities that are otherwise unavailable in Vanuatu, including a CT scanner and advanced surgical facilities.
The recently completed 300-metre wharf project was contracted to the Shanghai Construction Group and can safely accommodate two mid-size ships or one large vessel.
The head of the national security college at the Australian National University, Prof Rory Medcalf, said any foreign power establishing a foothold in the South Pacific would represent “a long-term failure of Australian policy”.
“For the first time since the 1940s, a foreign power with the potential to put Australian interests at risk would have a military presence in the South Pacific,” he said.
“I think there’s no question that Australia needs to redouble its efforts to persuade Vanuatu and other Pacific island nations that Australia is and should remain their preferred security partner and development partner.
“Perhaps it’s time for New Zealand to get more worried about the implications of Chinese power in the South Pacific as well.”
On Tuesday morning the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said “New Zealand is opposed to militarisation of the Pacific”.
Her foreign minister, Winston Peters, said: “This is hypothetical as Vanuatu have stated that they are not aware of a military base being built. More generally the militarisation of the Pacific is something we’ve been seriously concerned about as there are certain things that are not good for the long term peace and security of the Pacific, or for democracy itself.”
Medcalf said a Chinese military base on Vanuatu would pose significant problems for Australian interests.
“I don’t think China would be doing this specifically or solely to harm Australian interests, but there would be harm to Australian interests as a major side-effect of this presence,” he said.
“[Vanuatu] would be useful for China if it got itself in a strategic confrontation with the US … to be able to outflank the US and the Japanese. It would allow them to have some forces positioned behind the US base in Guam and would allow China to monitor and patrol the South Pacific Ocean.”
Medcalf said China was increasingly seeking to exert influence in the South Pacific. He said establishing a military presence could be a sort of payoff for development aid.
Chinese activities in the Pacific have been increasingly viewed through a military lens since the US “pivot” to the region in 2009. The US has a series of bases and training locations – running from Busan in Korea to Darwin in the Northern Territory – that many analysts believe is designed to demonstrate an ability to isolate China and block shipping supply routes.
Analyst Charles Edel, a senior fellow at the University of Sydney’s US studies centre, is concerned about the potential that China has been engaging in “debt-trap diplomacy”.
“We’ve seen variations on this in other parts of the world,” said Edel, who was an adviser to the former US secretary of state John Kerry.
“China does not import [energy] from the South Pacific, which begs the question why are they there. There are a number of other reasons, but one of them is clearly a strategic play, given the US bases in the Pacific. It increases the risks and challenges to the US.
“Vanuatu is a sovereign nation that makes its own decisions. But it also makes decisions that it sees in its own interests. The fact is they are one of two pacific nations that recognise China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea and that says something.”
Prof Sam Bateman, a professional research fellow at the University of Wollongong’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security and a former Australian navy commodore, said Vanuatu would offer “some strategic advantages” for China, but that a military buildup in the country remained unlikely. He said China’s economic interest in the South Pacific was “really only fish”.
Bateman said Chinese involvement in the South Pacific could upend the status quo, where Australia and New Zealand take a lead role in the Pacific Islands Forum.
“It would be interesting to see what would happen, for example, if China was to play a role in those institutions,” he said.