The Australian government has warned China against building a military base in the South Pacific following a report that the Chinese had approached the tiny island nation of Vanuatu about establishing an outpost there.
The report Monday that the Chinese and Vanuatu governments had held preliminary discussions about a permanent Chinese military presence in the former French colony, which is 1,500 miles off the coast of Australia, has raised alarm bells in the region.
But China hit back quickly Tuesday, with a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman dismissing the report that it was seeking to put a base on Vanuatu as “fake news.” Vanuatu’s government also said that there had been no such proposal. And Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said Vanuatu had assured his government that no such request had been made.
“We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbors of ours,” Turnbull said Tuesday.
Massive infrastructure projects and investment activity around the world form the backbone of China’s ambitious economic and geopolitical agenda, but to date China has built only one full-fledged overseas military base, in the Indian Ocean port of Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. It has also been building military outposts on man-made islands in the South China Sea despite U.S. concerns.
A Chinese military base close to Australia in the South Pacific could provide a significant boost in Beijing’s ability to project its power and could also undermine the strategic dominance of Western powers in an area they have long effectively controlled.
An official with the U.S. State Department confirmed that the department was aware of the report and was seeking to determine its credibility. The United States has an enduring interest in the security and stability of the Pacific, the official added.
The report comes as many Australians have become increasingly alarmed about Chinese influence in the country, with Australian politics recently thrown into turmoil over allegations that China was trying to buy its politicians and sway its elections.
Experts say that officials in Australia, the United States and New Zealand are closely watching Beijing as it deepens its influence in the South Pacific through infrastructure projects and loans to smaller nations, and that any effort to build military bases in the region would be particularly worrisome.
“If it were to happen, and it’s a huge if, it would be an aggressive move in the eyes of Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand,” said Graeme Smith, a Pacific affairs expert at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Vanuatu, an impoverished nation, is considered to be within Australia’s sphere of influence, with Canberra providing it with aid and investment. Australian politicians said that a Chinese base on Vanuatu would be a potential game changer for the region.
“It would have not only security but economic consequences for the region, and we should regard it as a wake-up call for Australia,” Sen. Penny Wong told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“It is not in the interest of the region — or in the interests of stability — for there to be increased competition, great power competition, in our region,” she said.
Jonathan Pryke, a Pacific islands expert with the Lowy Institute, noted that Vanuatu is home to a wharf built and financed by China that could conceivably be used for military purposes, particularly if Vanuatu has problems repaying the loan.
“They can provide a nice bit of economic leverage over that country,” Pryke added.
Fairfax Media reported that Beijing had recently committed to building a new residence for Vanuatu’s prime minister, Charlot Salwai, as well as other government buildings. Vanuatu has also reportedly been given hundreds of millions in development money by the Chinese.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.