Vanuatu denies Chinese approach to set up military base

"No-one in the Vanuatu Government has ever talked about a Chinese military base in Vanuatu of any sort", he told the ABC's Pacific Beat program.

In Beijing, China's defence ministry said the Fairfax report "completely did not accord with the facts", while a foreign ministry spokesman described it as "fake news".

A base less than 2000 kilometres from the Australian coast and 3000km from New Zealand would allow China to project military power into the Pacific Ocean and upend the long-standing strategic balance in the region, potentially increasing the risk of confrontation between China and the United States.

While they help project power and influence during peace time, such facilities could also be vital in a conflict, they say.

Vanuatu's foreign minister has denied a media report that China wanted to establish a permanent military presence on the Pacific island nation, easing fears about Beijing's rising assertiveness.

"I think it is important that Australia appreciate that China is far away but Chinese activity is definitely affecting Australia in a much more proximate way".

"It would be an incredibly aggressive signal to both the USA and Australia that "We're here, get used to it", he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Such a plan would mark an expansion of China's military aspirations beyond its controversial activities in Asia, particularly the South China Sea, where it has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and airstrips.

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"Are we giving enough love, to put it bluntly".

Any future naval or air base in Vanuatu would "give China a foothold for operations to coerce Australia, outflank the US and its base on USA territory at Guam, and collect intelligence in a regional security crisis", Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said in a report for the Lowy Institute think tank in Sydney.

It was forced to seek replenishment in Australia's western Albany Port to keep the rest of the deployment operational - not an option it could rely on in wartime.

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

"I think this is much more about China's long-term ambitions than some sort of short-term reaction to anything the U.S. has done", he said.

He added that access to plentiful fisheries to feed China's fast-rising demand for protein were likely one reason for consolidating its influence in the South Pacific. "I'm just not sure Vanuatu fully serves its needs".

During the spat, Australia's International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said the Pacific was "full of these useless buildings which nobody maintains".

This arrangement could then be built on, it added, with intelligence and security figures in Australia, New Zealand and the United States becoming increasingly anxious about China's growing influence.

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 U.S. forces operating where they needed to, he said.

Recent diplomatic rows have broken out between Australia and China over Beijing's aid programs in the Pacific.

  • Jon Douglas