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Labour says the Pacific is the “biggest single hole in Australia’s strategic policy”, and its failure to lead in the region was a problem for the Australia-US alliance.
Responding to a push by China to build a military base in Vanuatu, Labour’s defence spokesman Richard Marles said Australia was expected by the US to lead in the Pacific.
But he said the Turnbull government had failed to ensure that Australia was the partner of choice for Pacific nations.
“The countries in the region have choices. Being their partner is a privilege we must earn,” Marles told The Australian.
“This is a case where the nation that cares the most about the Pacific wins. When we fail to do this we not only fail the people of the Pacific we are failing to bring our full strategic weight to the Alliance.”
Vanuatu has a weak economy, and an unstable government that is prone to corruption. Beijing has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the nation in loans and development spending for infrastructure.
Fairfax reported that there had been preliminary discussions between the Chinese and Vanuatu governments on a military build-up, which could culminate in a full military base.
The island is well-placed strategically, and would allow China to project military power into the Pacific, in a major blow to US supremacy in the region.
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, who visited Vanuatu last week with Prince Charles, said China was working hard to be a regional power, supplying Pacific nations with infrastructure funding to win their support.
However, she said Vanuatu was “very appreciative” of Australian development assistance, particularly in the wake of Cyclone Pam three years ago.
“We also provide patrol boats to Pacific Island nations; we support them to stop illegal fishing, trans national crime, people-smuggling,” she said.
“So I am confident that Australia remains a partner of choice for Vanuatu and other Pacific Islands when it comes to security.”
Labour has flagged a renewed focus on the Pacific if it wins the election, including greater military co-operation and support for the delivery of government services such as the management of exclusive economic zones.
Marles said the US relied on Australia to keep an eye on the Pacific and maintain relationships with its island nations.
“Across the broad canvas of our bilateral relationship with the United States — a relationship which is mostly characterised by US leadership — the one place where we are expected to lead is the Pacific,” he said. “It is our chance to demonstrate our leadership qualities as a nation.”
Meanwhile, a Chinese embassy spokesman in Vanuatu said that reports of a plan to establish a military base here in Vanuatu were ‘ridiculous’.
“That’s impossible”, said Chen Ke, a spokesman for the Ambassador.
A senior Vanuatu government advisor concurred: “That conversation was never on the table.” The advisor claimed detailed knowledge of relevant matters in two key ministries and insisted that the topic was never even hinted at. They went on to suggest that the source of the recent Fairfax Media story was not the Government of Vanuatu.
Chen insisted that China’s naval presence in the Pacific islands was humanitarian in nature. He cited an upcoming joint exercise between New Zealand, Vanuatu and China that will be gaming out a disaster response scenario.
The next scheduled visit for a naval vessel to Vanuatu, he said, would be in September when the full-service hospital ship Peace Ark is scheduled to arrive on a humanitarian visit. It first visited Vanuatu in September 2014. According to Chinese PLA Navy public relations, its capabilities are equivalent to a mid-size to large hospital in Beijing.
It contains equipment and facilities that are otherwise unavailable in the country, including a CAT scanner and advanced surgical facilities.
The ship’s last visit was immensely popular among residents of the capital. A public relations official estimated that nearly 5,000 people received consultation or treatment during the week-long visit.
SOURCE: THE AUSTRALIAN/ VANUATU DAILY POST/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
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