China’s reported military overture to Vanuatu is sparking fears in Australia and beyond

Venturing out.
Venturing out.
Image: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

For decades, Australia has enjoyed one clear benefit from its remote location: No major military power has posed a nearby threat. In the years ahead, that could change.

According to a report by Fairfax Media published yesterday (April 9), the governments of China and Vanuatu have held preliminary discussions about China building a military base in the South Pacific island nation. A spokesman for China’s embassy in Vanuatu said the idea was “ridiculous,” while Vanuatu’s foreign minister, Ralph Regenvanu, rejected the report.

But the article, citing unnamed sources, has been taken seriously by many and already sparked much discussion, in Australia and beyond, about China’s moves and intentions in the South Pacific, which is dotted with small but strategically significant islands.

Oceania, including Melanesia, Australasia, Polynesia, and Micronesia.
Oceania in focus.
Image: Tintazul/Wikimedia Commons

James Kraska, a professor of international law at the US Naval War College, noted on Twitter that a Chinese base in Vanuatu would outflank “not only Australia but also Guam.” The US military has a strong presence on Guam, a key territory.

“Whilst these countries might be small, and disparate and isolated, in reality they occupy a serious part of the world’s space which is becoming more important every day,” said New Zealand’s foreign minister, Winston Peters, while speaking at the Lowy Institute in Sydney last month.

Beijing has denied its maritime intentions before, and shown a willingness to play the long game. In the mid-1990s, it reassured Manila that it was merely building a “fishermen’s shelter” at Mischief Reef, close to the Philippines in the South China Sea. It now operates a militarized manmade island there, along with others nearby.

China has also been accused of showering weaker nations with development funding—or setting debt traps—with an eye toward later using their strategic locations or resources, or securing their support in diplomatic affairs. Beijing has provided significant development funding in recent years to Vanuatu, which in turn has supported its controversial claims in the South China Sea.

In December, Sri Lanka signed a 99-year lease turning over a strategic port in the southern city of Hambantota to a Chinese company, in order to lessen its debt to China, which helped fund the building of the port. The port will play a important role in China’s Belt and Road initiative, which will link ports and roads between China and Europe. China has denied the port will serve a military purpose.

Following the Fairfax report, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said, ”We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific Island countries and neighbors of ours.” His New Zealand counterpart, Jacinda Ardern, said that her nation will “keep a watching eye on activity within the Pacific” and that “New Zealand is opposed to the militarization of the Pacific generally.” She visited South Pacific islands last month, with concerns about China’s growing clout very much in mind.

Both leaders said they were unaware of Chinese plans regarding a base in Vanuatu. But they, like the US, are fully aware of China’s patience, military modernization, and growing maritime reach.