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Australian Prime Minister has warned China not to consider building military bases on South Pacific Islands.
“The maintenance of peace and stability in the Pacific is of utmost importance to Australia," Malcolm Turnbull said.
“We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific Island countries and neighbours of ours.”
It comes after a Fairfax Media report which said that there have been early discussions between the Chinese and Vanuatu governments about a military build-up in the island nation.
The Prime Minister said Vanuatu has assured Australia than no approach had been made.
But 9NEWS has confirmed that the Australian Defence Force is aware that China has sounded out Vanuatu about increasing its military engagement.
A senior defence official said China “has certainly expressed its interest” in a greater military presence to the government of the South Pacific nation.
It was not clear how far that had advanced or if what was planned was a permanent base or port access rights.
Either move would be a cause for alarm.
“We don't want to see any change to the status quo in the South Pacific,” the defence official said.
“And China building a base on Vanuatu would be a significant change to the status quo.
“We don't want an increasing militarisation of the region.”
Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong told the ABC that a Chinese military base on the island should be regarded as a “game changer” for Australia and the South Pacific.
“It is not in the interests of the region, nor in the interests of stability for there to be increased great power competition in our region,” Senator Wong said.
“Militarisation and competition in the region is not something that is conducive to the sort of stable and prosperous region that all of us want.”
China is winning hearts and minds in the South Pacific by increasing aid at a time when Australia is cutting foreign spending hard to reign in the Budget deficit.
The Lowy Institute has tracked China's growing influence, finding it has spent US$1.7 billion on 218 projects over the last decade.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she was unaware that China had made an offer to Vanuatu over increasing its military footprint.
“The Government of Vanuatu has said there is no such proposal,” Bishop told ABC radio.
“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," she said.
“We must remember that Vanuatu is a sovereign nation and its foreign and defence relations are a matter for Vanuatu.”
The head of the ANU's National Security College, Rory Medcalf, says the reports are a significant cause for concern.
Australia needed to work out what was planned and why.
There were several plausible reasons why China would want to establish a presence that ranged from the benign to the troubling.
“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,” Professor Medcalf said.
Professor Medcalf said that Australia should not provoke undue alarm about China’s behaviour in Vanuatu, without evidence.
But three decades of military planning warned about the dangers of a potentially hostile force gaining a foothold in the region.
“There is nothing between Vanuatu and Australia except the Coral Sea, a point historians of the Second World War will be quick to note,” Professor Medcalf said.
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.
SOURCE: NINE NEWS/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
Media Helping Media