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Chinese military bases in Vanuatu

25 June 2018

Dr Graeme Smith explains what it means for Australia.

1. What are China’s motivations?

It’s hard to say. Chinese actors have denied any knowledge of an offer being made to build a military base in Vanuatu, either around the Luganville Wharf, or anywhere else. Nor does Vanuatu seem like the obvious choice for a base – it is far from crucial shipping lanes or significant militarily choke points like the Wetar Strait off the coast of Timor-Leste.

There does seem to have been an offer made by Chinese defence companies to build a radar array in Timor back in 2007. But the government declined this offer after consulting with US diplomats and other allies. Aside from Timor, Fiji, Tonga and even Papua New Guinea would make more sense if there were intent to build a full-scale military base. I’m not convinced that the intent is there, at least at present.

However, Chinese sources do admit that a space-tracking station in the Pacific is of considerable interest. I think that within the next five to ten years we’re likely to see something along those lines, although not necessarily in Vanuatu. Given that space warfare is one of the People’s Liberation Army’s key priorities, such a facility would just be for peaceful purposes but it would cause less friction than a Djibouti style naval base.

2. What benefit will Vanuatu get? Do you think its non-aligned status will prevent such a deal from actually coming to fruition? 

The temptation for a future government of Vanuatu to allow a facility to be built is revenue. A base could prove a steady revenue stream if the government could negotiate a lucrative, long-term lease. However, both the present government and the opposition have categorically ruled out a base. And there’s no reason to doubt them. Vanuatu’s external debt to GDP ratio is well below the IMF’s threshold of concern. Indeed, at current levels it is quite manageable.

The motivation on the PRC side, oddly, is quite similar. If a push for a base does come, it will be led by Chinese companies looking for projects. There is endless commentary about China’s ‘debt trap’ under the Belt and Road Initiative, with analysts extrapolating from Sri Lanka to Vanuatu.

3. What does this mean for Australia? 

At the moment, not much. There’s no sign of it happening under the current government in Vanuatu.

However, the Australian government reacted for a reason – someone has seen some intelligence that alarms them, and David Wroe’s reporting (they hope) will serve as a wake-up call. My concern is that without hard proof that can be shared with the Australian public, this approach quickly takes us into ‘cry wolf’ territory. Post-Iraq, the security and intelligence establishment can’t say to the Australian public, ‘trust us’ because in large part they simply aren’t trusted. On the Pacific side, without proof, it comes across as loudspeaker diplomacy, especially when paired with Concetta Fierravanti-Wells’ remarks earlier in the year about Chinese aid building ‘roads to nowhere.’ This concerns me because Xi Jinping’s regime does present a greater strategic challenge for all the nations of the Pacific, but stories like this create so much noise that the signal is lost.

The real issue here is that PRC’s current, more assertive regime is encouraging Chinese companies to work with Pacific-based middlemen to start projects with a strategic edge. In large part, this is benign and even beneficial – there is no doubt the infrastructure needs of the Pacific remain unmet. However, in the past, although companies were only encouraged to blend strategic and economic goals there was little consequence for inaction on this front. Now, to be successful companies must curry favour with Xi Jinping’s regime by being seen to advance China’s interests abroad.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team