Recent Australian media reports suggest that China aims to establish a permanent naval base on the Pacific island republic of Vanuatu, a move which if true would significantly shift the region’s security dynamics.
The Vanuatu government and China deny that any such plans are afoot. But the fact is that China has already built a new wharf on the Vanuatu island of Espiritu Santo which is far too large for the mere commercial purposes of its 40,000 inhabitants and occasional tourists.
The port, built with financial support from China, is one of the largest in the South Pacific and can accommodate three cargo ships and two cruise liners at the same time, according to press reports.
Whatever the facility’s ultimate intent, the controversy surrounding it has put a new spotlight on China’s expanding influence in the South Pacific, a challenge not only to nearby Australia but also to the United States as the prime power in the region.
Most of the Pacific nations are tiny with minuscule populations. But they each have huge economic exclusive zones (EEZs) in the vast waterway that lies between China and America.
According to the Australia-based think tank the Lowy Institute, China has recently rapidly expanded both its commercial ties and aid programs in the Pacific. It has committed more than US$1.7 billion in aid to eight countries in the region including Timor Leste.
This is still not as much as Western nations give: total aid to Pacific countries amounted to US$9 billion over the same period, with Australia providing almost two-thirds of that sum, according to the Lowy Institute.
China’s development assistance, as in other regions, does not come with the same requirements for transparency and accountability as Western aid. And China’s promoted projects often focus on symbols of power and grandeur like sports stadiums, government buildings and police stations that appeal to regional leaders more than the sustainable development schemes favored by Western aid agencies.
Such projects have been carried out in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and even the Cook Islands, a New Zealand dependent territory. While China’s loans and projects may be lavish, it is questionable whether already indebted Pacific island nations can truly afford to repay without eventual sovereignty-eroding concessions.
Debt dependence ensures long-term relationships which ultimately will work in Beijing’s long-term strategic interest. China-backed projects usually bring in workers from China and thus do not provide local people with desperately needed employment opportunities.
Though there is no evidence yet that China seeks to expand its influence through military might, it is inevitable that its expanding Pacific interests will eventually clash with those of the US and other Western powers.
Defense analysts note how Japan and other expansionist countries have historically used the islands to try to build a Pacific empire. Tokyo did just that before and during World War II to challenge US supremacy in an attempt to wrest control over the “buffer ocean” between Asia and the Americas.
While Japan’s failed approach was mainly military, China must have learned from those experiences and is pursuing multi-track policies involving aid, loans and diplomacy in its Pacific gambit.
At the same time, China is developing for the first time a blue-water navy and that extended reach will inevitably increase its interest in the nearby Pacific. That, perhaps, is where Vanuatu comes into the picture.
If the new port facility is developed or used as a naval base, it would be China’s second such overseas naval facility; the first is at Obock in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, which was inaugurated in August last year.
To be sure, China’s interest in Vanuatu could be less strategically ambitious. The South Pacific is also an arena of competition between China and Taiwan.
Only 20 nations in the world recognize Taiwan as the legitimate government of China, and six of those are in the South Pacific: Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands. Certain South Pacific nations have shifted recognition back and forth between China and Taiwan depending on which offers more aid.
In 2003, China lost its satellite-tracking station on the small, poor island nation of Kiribati when it decided to diplomatically recognize Taiwan rather than China in exchange for aid.
At the time, the US suspected that the station, established in 1997, also monitored American missile tests at nearby Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
But as Australian signals intelligence specialist Desmond Ball pointed out at the time, the station was actually too small for advanced operations such as monitoring missile tests on Kwajalein. Ball argued that China’s Yuan Wang tracking ships were far more useful for basic intelligence gathering.
Those spy ships, laden with all kinds of communications gear, are still active worldwide. According to the website globalsecurity.org, four Yuan Wang tracking ships are regularly deployed to three major oceans – the western Pacific, South Pacific and Indian Ocean – to support, track and control piloted missions of its Shenzhou spacecraft and spaceflight program.
Ball suggested China’s loss of the Kiribati satellite-tracking station was significant for another reason: it deprived Beijing of a land base in the Pacific from where the movements and activities of its Yuan Wang ships could be coordinated.
Security analysts suggest that China has since sought a new such base located near the Equator. Nauru was reportedly in Beijing’s sights when it severed ties with Taiwan and recognized China in 2002, but fell off again when the island nation switched back to Taiwan in 2005.
Vanuatu would be a logical location for China to establish a new satellite-tracking station and ground support facility for its Yuan Wang spy ships, but it is also one of the Pacific’s least politically stable nations. Coup-plagued Fiji, one of China’s closest allies in the region, might also be in Beijing’s sights as a possible site.
China has seldom hesitated to establish close ties with unstable nations if they help to serve its strategic interests, including in President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), under which Beijing will build infrastructure worldwide. China’s closest BRI allies in Asia are Pakistan and Myanmar, two of Asia’s most politically unstable nations.
While certainly risky, China is quietly making moves in the Pacific at a time when the US is preoccupied with more pressing security issues in the Middle East, Afghanistan and the Korean Peninsula.
Those moves are starting to appear on America’s radar. This month, US inspectors conducted a survey of the Vanuatu wharf on Espiritu Santo in advance preparations for a military exercise the US will undertake in the South Pacific later this year.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, meanwhile, said this month in apparent reference to the China-backed Vanuatu facility that his government would “view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries.”
That, of course, overlooks the US and France’s already considerable military presences in the Pacific. Turnbull was speaking instead about China, which for the first time in its history is emerging as a Pacific Ocean power.