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Vanuatu’s Prime Minister has vowed to “fiercely oppose” any push to build a foreign military base on the Pacific island nation, while also defending his government's close ties to “friend and global leader” China.
In his first major statement since Fairfax Media revealed China's ambitions to establish a permanent military presence in the South Pacific, Charlot Salwai also maintained that a Beijing-funded and constructed wharf capable of accepting warships was entirely Vanuatu’s idea and aimed at helping its people.
“The government will fiercely oppose any attempt to build a military base in the country that is the happiest place in the world and which is a direct affront of its policy to promote peace and security in the region,” Salwai said in a statement.
Fairfax Media revealed on Tuesday China was eyeing a permanent military presence in Vanuatu and had made initial approaches to the country. Beijing has been showering Vanuatu, which has a population of about 270,000, with hundreds of millions of dollars in development money over recent years.
Top national security figures in Canberra and Washington are deeply concerned about China’s ambitions for Vanuatu and its overtures to the small nation.
Salwai described Fairfax Media's report as “rather speculative and seemingly malicious in intent”.
“Vanuatu’s relationship with China is premised on the principle of mutual respect of each other’s political independence, peaceful coexistence, territorial integrity and sovereignty, and with a strong developmental component,” he said.
“Furthermore, the Vanuatu government greatly values its relationship with the government of China as an important development partner, friend and global leader for the benefit of our people in terms of employment and economic development.”
Salwai’s written statement - his office has not responded to repeated interview requests from Fairfax Media - came as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged there was “some tension” in Canberra’s relationship with Beijing after his government introduced foreign interference laws widely seen as aimed primarily at China.
Also, on Thursday, the United States announced that the commander of its Pacific fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, was cancelling a visit to Australia because of “unforeseen circumstances”.
Defence experts fear a new wharf on the northern island of Espiritu Santo, which was built by a Chinese company and paid for by a concessional loan from Beijing, could in the future be used to dock warships.
Salwai said the wharf and an upgrade to the nearby airport - also being completed by a Chinese firm - were “at the behest of the Vanuatu government” and had “not been imposed by China as the development partner”.
The $114 million (US$88.4 million), 360-metre long wharf is serving cruise liners and container ships but has not received as much business as was anticipated.
Salwai also specifically reassured other aid donors, which include Australia.
“The Vanuatu government wants to reassure its development partners that it is satisfied with the current level of bipartisan relationships and it is not in our interest to jeopardise these partnerships.”
Australia's relationship with China is suffering from “some tension” amid fallout from the government's foreign interference laws and Beijing's growing influence in the Pacific, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Neil Mitchell on Thursday.
Turnbull, who blamed “misunderstandings and mischaracterisations” in Chinese media for the frayed relationship between China and Australia, did not dispute reports on Thursday that visa approvals for Coalition ministers were being held up by Beijing.
“I want to say we have a very good relationship with China. I regularly correspond with Chinese leaders – both the Premier, Li Keqiang, and the President, Xi Jinping – but it is very – but the relationship is very deep and extensive. But from time to time there are differences in perception,” Turnbull said.
The friction has been noticed at the annual Boao Forum in China, which was not attended by any Australian minister.
Former treasurer Peter Costello, who has attended Boao for a decade and was invited this year to talk about tax reform, told Fairfax Media it was important to maintain semi-official diplomacy.
“When the official relationship becomes strained it is important that countries who have long-term interests have continued dialogue and the capacity to keep the lines of communication open,” he said.
“We might have a strained relationship with China but it is still our largest trading partner,” said Costello.
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
Media Helping Media