HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - The islands of Vanuatu may appear as relative specks in the South Pacific Ocean, but for China’s military strategists, they could provide a significant boost in Beijing’s ability to project naval power.
The prospect of a Chinese military base in the heart of the South Pacific, reported by Australia’s Fairfax Media on Tuesday, will also complicate the strategic dominance of Western powers in an ocean area they have long effectively controlled, according to diplomats and experts monitoring developments.
Fairfax Media reported China has approached Vanuatu about establishing a permanent military presence there, saying the possibility of such a facility has already alarmed high level officials in Canberra and Washington.
Vanuatu’s foreign minister denied there had been any such discussion of a Chinese military base in the country. China’s defence ministry said the Fairfax report “completely did not accord with the facts” while a foreign ministry spokesman said the report was “fake news”.
Both Western and Asian military attaches say a broad network of bases and friendly ports will be vital if China is to meet its ambitions of becoming a blue water navy, mirroring the kind of established reach long enjoyed by the U.S. and its allies.
While they help project power and influence during peace time, such facilities could also be vital in a conflict, they say.
Even a localised conflict close to the Chinese mainland over the disputed East or South China Seas could involve manoeuvres far from its shores, whether to protect command vessels or break blockades of commercial shipping, for example.
While far from key shipping lanes and not as important as Indian Ocean ports, Vanuatu would put China close to the coast of Australia, a major U.S. ally, and give it a presence nearer the U.S. base of Guam beyond the Asian island chains that hem in Beijing.
Graeme Smith, a Pacific Affairs expert at the Australian National University, said a Chinese base on Vanuatu would send a strong message to Australia, the United States and their allies.
“It would be an incredibly aggressive signal to both the U.S. and Australia that ‘We’re here, get used to it’,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Vanuatu was one of the first countries to recognise China’s position in the South China Sea and remains the only Pacific nation to have done so.
Smith noted that Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai had visited China twice since being elected in 2016 but had yet to visit Australia, “partly because of him not being given priority on the Australian side”.
“Are we giving enough love, to put it bluntly”.
If China were to build a base in the South Pacific, it would be only the second after the recent establishment of a logistics facility in the international Indian Ocean port of Djibouti.
China’s lack of bases was exposed in 2014 when China’s navy stretched its supply lines and logistics to deploy 18 ships to search for a missing Malaysian airliner across the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.
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.
Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said it was natural for a major military power to explore options to extend its defence capabilities.
Ni, however, said he did not consider Vanuatu a natural choice for a military base given the great distance from China would make it difficult to provide operational support in waters it did not control.
Zhang Baohui, a mainland security expert at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said while China had a thirst for long-term bases and reliable ports, the Indian Ocean was a greater priority.
“China has to right to seek bases as its expands its naval deployments, and it is has few options beyond smaller and poorer nations,” he said. “I’m just not sure Vanuatu fully serves its needs.”
Vanuatu, a former British-French colony previously known as the New Hebrides, housed a large U.S. military base during World War Two aimed at helping stem the advance of the Japanese army through the Pacific towards Australia, 2,000 km (1,200 miles) to the west.
New Zealand-based security scholar Marc Lanteigne said the Fairfax report, while unconfirmed, was “a wake up call” to Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
“A Chinese base in Vanuatu would represent a significant strategic challenge to Australia and New Zealand in their backyard,” said Lanteigne, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in Auckland.
Some analysts believe that Australia, France and New Zealand are likely to re-double diplomatic efforts in the region to ensure China’s foothold is contained.
A study by Australia’s independent Lowy Institute think-tank last week urged greater efforts by Canberra to deepen its traditional ties in the Pacific, noting China’s growing influence and the “increasing risk of geostrategic competition in the region.”
Reporting by Greg Torode in Hong Kong and Philip Wen in Beijing; Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd in Beijing. Editing by Lincoln Feast.