Concerns over China’s influence in the Pacific region are growing, as reports emerge that the superpower wants to build a military base in Vanuatu.
Fairfax Media published claims that talks between China and the Pacific nation are in the preliminary stages, but could culminate in a permanent military presence on Australia’s doorstep.
Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific co-chair Ralph Cossa said the move was the latest in China’s attempts to counter US power in the region.
“It’s probably more psychological than it is strategic,” he told the ABC’s Pacific Beat.
“If ever there was a conflict in the area, I would certainly not want to be living on a Chinese base in Vanuatu.
“But in peacetime, it just sort of increases the Chinese shadow into that area.”
China currently has just one overseas military base — in the African country of Djibouti — but has been increasing its presence in the Pacific.
The Lowy Institute said China had contributed more than $2.3 billion in aid to the Pacific since 2006.
Vanuatu is less than 2,000 kilometres from Australia and is one of few countries that has backed China’s position on the disputed South China Sea.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she was unaware of a military offer being made by China to Vanuatu.
“The Government of Vanuatu has said there is no such proposal,” Ms Bishop told RN Breakfast.
“I’m aware that China is more engaged in the Pacific, Chinese vessels visited Vanuatu last year as part of a broader visit to the region but these sorts of visits are normal for many neighbours around the world.
“We must remember that Vanuatu is a sovereign nation and its foreign and defence relations are a matter for Vanuatu.”
Ms Bishop used a trip to Papua New Guinea and Tonga last month to remind Pacific nations that Australia’s neighbours are its biggest beneficiaries of aid.
Vanuatu’s opposition leader Ishmael Kalsakau said his country’s Government was not properly considering the implications of China’s growing involvement in the region.
“Our economy is stagnant, we’re just blindly accepting the intervention of countries like China who come in with their generosity but we’ve got to know what’s in store for them at the end of all of this,” he told Pacific Beat.
“When you start talking about the possibilities of military bases … this is not the stability this country needs.”
The ABC has contacted the Chinese embassy in Vanuatu for comment.
Mr Cossa said Beijing was likely to use its trade ties with the region as justification for a military presence.
“They’ll give non-military justifications for it, but clearly it will have military significance, and particularly psychological significance, sort of reminding people that China’s now a presence in the region,” he said.
Recent diplomatic rows have broken out between Australia and China over Beijing’s aid programs in the Pacific.
In January, China lodged a formal protest over criticism by International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells that China was funding useless infrastructure projects.