China proposes military base in South Pacific

HMAS Huon docked at Luganville on Espiritu Santo

The prospect of a Chinese military outpost so close to Australia has been discussed at the highest levels in Canberra and Washington, Fairfax said. This arrangement could then be built on.

Beijing has been providing funding for the nation of about 270,000 people for new civic buildings, a wharf and airport upgrades, it said.

Australia has always been watching with caution as China deepens its influence on the Pacific Island, undertaking several infrastructure projects and providing aid and financing to small, developing island nations in the region.

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

China formally established its first worldwide military base in Djibouti in July past year, in the strategically important Horn of Africa, this was followed several months later by the country's controversial acquisition of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. A Chinese embassy spokesman even called the idea "ridiculous".

Bateman said Vanuatu would offer "some strategic advantages" for China, but that a military buildup in the country remained unlikely.

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

However, a senior official of the Vanuatu government said that such discussions have never taken place and China isn't planning to build a military base in the island nation.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Vanuatu with Prince Charles on Saturday in a diplomatic tour that Fairfax Media has been told was aimed at demonstrating the merits of the Commonwealth's commitment to a free and open system of global rules.




New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said he would want to know what was happening before responding to China's reported attempts to create a military base in the Pacific.

While they help project power and influence during peace time, such facilities could also be vital in a conflict, they say. "The government of Vanuatu has said there is no such proposal, but it is a fact that China is engaging in infrastructure investment activities around the world", Bishop told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

"I would be very surprised if we saw any development there military, security-wise in the near future", he said.

Such a Chinese presence would make the seas "more crowded" for the Royal Australian Navy, though professional forces could manage this safely and it would not stop Australian or United States forces operating where they needed to, he said.

"China has to right to seek bases as its expands its naval deployments, and it is has few options beyond smaller and poorer nations", he said.

The Lowy Institute said China had contributed more than $2.3 billion in aid to the Pacific since 2006.

China has set a pattern in the Indian Ocean whereby it builds infrastructure paid for by concessional Chinese loans which the local government can not repay.

China reportedly accounts for almost half of Vanuatu's $463 million foreign debt. Chen Ke, a spokesman for the ambassador to Vanuatu, also explained that China's presence in the Pacific was purely for humanitarian purposes and also spoke about a planned disaster response exercise between New Zealand, Vanuatu and China. Chinese builders are putting the finishing touches on a AUD$14 million (US$10 million) school that will be reportedly the biggest education facility in the South Pacific.

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