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The many questions about China’s Vanuatu ambition


12 April 2018

This article was originally published by Lowy Institute.

What to make of the extraordinary story in Australia’s Fairfax newspapers on Tuesday about reported
discussions between China and Vanuatu that could allow the People’s Liberation Army to establish a
presence in the South Pacific nation?

If true, there would be significant cause for concern from an Australian national security perspective.

However, let’s first establish some facts. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been quoted as saying she
has no information that China was planning to build a military base in Vanuatu and that she was
confident Australia would remain Vanuatu’s strategic partner of choice. So the initial response should
be not to sound an alarm but to ask questions, lots of them.

The first big question is: what?

Is China simply seeking military access to existing facilities, or is it building new infrastructure
specifically for its forces? How far are these “preliminary discussions” from being a diplomatically done
deal? Are we talking dual-use – a civilian port and airport that receives the occasional PLA visit – or
something intended primarily for military purposes? Would it involve a permanent force presence?

The second big question is: why?

What could China’s objectives be? The South Pacific does not appear to have great strategic
importance for China’s interests; not like, say, the Indian Ocean sea lanes, where China is establishing
a line of access points from Djibouti to Maldives to Pakistan to Sri Lanka. China’s dependence on
those waters for the transport of its oil supplies helps explain why the western Indo-Pacific is critical to
its security.

Not so for Vanuatu and its surrounds. This is a long way from any credible geography of the Belt and
Road, the Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics.

There are several plausible reasons for China to want access or presence for its armed forces in the
South Pacific.
For instance, China may understandably want to improve its ability to deploy assets for operations
other than war, such as to evacuate its nationals from unstable Pacific Islands states in a future enter email here...
breakdown of law and order or a natural disaster. Those are activities Australia and other established
regional security providers (New Zealand, France, the US) may even at one level mildly welcome and regular digest
offer to coordinate with.
each post
But they would also be deeply mindful that China has used “transnational” security challenges – such
as piracy in the Gulf of Aden or bad weather in the South China Sea – as cover for strategic presence. Subscribe

Remember, it was only a decade ago that China (like others) sent a flotilla on an initial short rotation to Related study
thwart Somali pirates. Beijing has since fortified a military base in Djibouti designed to accommodate
up to 10,000 marines. Chinese warships are also on permanent rotation in the Indian Ocean, where it International relations
conducts combat exercises, including in the vicinity of Australia’s Indian Ocean territories, and National security policy
its submarines visit with increasingly frequency. Strategic studies
International security
Less charitable interpretations of the Vanuatu option include a possible Chinese intent to establish a
Asian studies
presence that could support (and protect) contentious resource-exploitation activities in the regional
Asian and Pacific languages
commons, such as intensive fishing and seabed mining.
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Or perhaps China seeks a security footprint to enable its training of the forces of small island states as improve our website? Help us make
it extends influence over them. This may have some capacity-building benefits but also amounts to Related
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Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs
History offers another intriguing angle. China’s navy is not a complete stranger to the South Pacific.
Access to open ocean can be useful for testing missile and space capabilities. In May 1980, Australian I'll do it No thanks
forces tracked closely as China sent a fleet of 18 ships to the waters north-east of Vanuatu to recover
a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile that had splashed down there after a test flight. This
was the PRC’s most ambitious naval expedition until that time.

But the most troubling implication for Australian interests is that a future naval or air base in Vanuatu
would give China a foothold for operations to coerce Australia, outflank the US and its base on US
territory at Guam, and collect intelligence in a regional security crisis.

The risk should not be overstated: a single distant outpost such as this would be vulnerable. Moreover,
even if it were to develop a substantial base, it would remain located in what for China will likely remain
a strategic backwater.

The main game in a future confrontation between China and the US (or other major powers Japan and
India) would be in East Asia, the South China Sea, or the Indian Ocean. So how much capability would
Beijing ever really position in the tropical southern seas?

Yet however small the initial footprint, the establishment of a Chinese naval or air force presence in
Vanuatu would be a negative turning point in Australian defence policy.

There is nothing between Vanuatu and Australia except the Coral Sea, a point historians of the Second
World War will be quick to note. Of course, it is important to distinguish between Imperial Japan and
today’s China. The PRC is currently not a source of direct military threat to Australia. But defence
planners have to consider worst-case scenarios, and China is a source of risk – a potential threat if it
chose to be, and if regional strategic dynamics were to keep deteriorating.

A Chinese military base in Vanuatu would mark an accumulative and long-term failure of bipartisan
Australian policy, in terms consistently defined in every single Australian defence white paper as well
as strategic guidance documents going back at least three decades, for instance in the Defence White
Paper, 1987 under the Hawke government:

An unfriendly maritime power in the area could inhibit our freedom of movement through
these approaches and could place in doubt the security of Australia's supply of military
equipment and other strategic materiel from the United States.

And the Defence White Paper, 2016 under the Turnbull/Abbott governments:

Australia cannot be secure if our immediate neighbourhood including … Pacific Island

Countries becomes a source of threat … This includes the threat of a foreign military
power seeking influence in ways that could challenge the security of our maritime

Australian policymakers have plenty of reason not to provoke undue alarm over China’s behaviour. It is
a tough and rather chilly time in the bilateral relationship, as both sides adjust to Canberra’s sustained
assertion of the national interest against foreign influence and interference. No Australian government
would want to make relations even tougher for no good reason.

In that spirit, let’s not leap to conclusions over these new media revelations. But let’s not dismiss them
as groundless or paranoid, either.

Image Credit: Shutterstock


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UPDATED: 24 April, 2017/RESPONSIBLE OFFICER: Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/PAGE CONTACT: CAP Web Team

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