No plans for Chinese military base, says Vanuatu

Chinese President Xi Jinping

Earlier this year, Beijing lodged a formal diplomatic protest after a senior Australian minister called Chinese infrastructure projects in the region "white elephants".

Vanuatu's Foreign Minister has denied the country is in talks with China about a possible military base in Vanuatu and said its Government was not interested in any militarisation of the country.

Currently, China has only one military base in a foreign country, located in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, but has been increasing its presence in the Pacific, especially in the South China Sea.

Chinese activities in the Pacific have been increasingly viewed through a military lens since the United States "pivot" to the region in 2009. "We are not interested in militarization, we are just not interested in any sort of military base in our country", Regenvanu told the ABC broadcaster.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he had been advised there had been no request from China for Vanuatu to host a base.

China had been more engaged with the Pacific recently and its naval ships visited Vanuatu in 2017, but those sorts of visits were normal for all nations to conduct, Ms Bishop said. It is China's first overseas naval base, but Beijing describes it as a logistics facility.

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.

During the spat, Australia's International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said the Pacific was "full of these useless buildings which nobody maintains".

The wharf is close to an worldwide airport that China is helping Vanuatu upgrade.

A spokeswoman for the Chinese embassy in Canberra declined to comment. Djibouti's position on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean has fueled worry in India that it would become another of China's "string of pearls" military alliances and assets ringing India, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

"Chinese presence in Vanuatu, while today about fishing access and commercial trade, tomorrow could represent a threat to Australia's northern approaches", he added.

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.

Cooper said with the USA focused on north Asia, Washington would expect Australia to stop the South Pacific from sliding too deeply into Beijing's hands.

"We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific Island countries and neighbours of ours", Mr Turnbull said.

Such a plan would mark an expansion of China's military aspirations beyond its controversial activities in Asia, particularly the South China Sea, where it has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and airstrips.

"I think this is much more about China's long-term ambitions than some sort of short-term reaction to anything the USA has done", he said.

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