What to make of the extraordinary story in Australia’s Fairfax newspapers on Tuesday about reported discussions between China and Vanuatu that could allow the People’s Liberation Army to establish a presence in the South Pacific nation?
If true, there would be significant cause for concern from an Australian national security perspective.
However, let’s first establish some facts. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been quoted as saying she has no information that China was planning to build a military base in Vanuatu and that she was confident Australia would remain Vanuatu’s strategic partner of choice. So the initial response should be not to sound an alarm but to ask questions, lots of them.
The first big question is: what?
Is China simply seeking military access to existing facilities, or is it building new infrastructure specifically for its forces? How far are these “preliminary discussions” from being a diplomatically done deal? Are we talking dual-use – a civilian port and airport that receives the occasional PLA visit – or something intended primarily for military purposes? Would it involve a permanent force presence?
The second big question is: why?
What could China’s objectives be? The South Pacific does not appear to have great strategic importance for China’s interests; not like, say, the Indian Ocean sea lanes, where China is establishing a line of access points from Djibouti to Maldives to Pakistan to Sri Lanka. China’s dependence on those waters for the transport of its oil supplies helps explain why the western Indo-Pacific is critical to its security.
Not so for Vanuatu and its surrounds. This is a long way from any credible geography of the Belt and Road, the Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics.
There are several plausible reasons for China to want access or presence for its armed forces in the South Pacific.
For instance, China may understandably want to improve its ability to deploy assets for operations other than war, such as to evacuate its nationals from unstable Pacific Islands states in a future breakdown of law and order or a natural disaster. Those are activities Australia and other established regional security providers (New Zealand, France, the US) may even at one level mildly welcome and offer to coordinate with.
But they would also be deeply mindful that China has used “transnational” security challenges – such as piracy in the Gulf of Aden or bad weather in the South China Sea – as cover for strategic presence.
Remember, it was only a decade ago that China (like others) sent a flotilla on an initial short rotation to thwart Somali pirates. Beijing has since fortified a military base in Djibouti designed to accommodate up to 10,000 marines. Chinese warships are also on permanent rotation in the Indian Ocean, where it conducts combat exercises, including in the vicinity of Australia’s Indian Ocean territories, and its submarines visit with increasingly frequency.
Less charitable interpretations of the Vanuatu option include a possible Chinese intent to establish a presence that could support (and protect) contentious resource-exploitation activities in the regional commons, such as intensive fishing and seabed mining.
Or perhaps China seeks a security footprint to enable its training of the forces of small island states as it extends influence over them. This may have some capacity-building benefits but also amounts to direct competition with Australia and New Zealand.
History offers another intriguing angle. China’s navy is not a complete stranger to the South Pacific. Access to open ocean can be useful for testing missile and space capabilities. In May 1980, Australian forces tracked closely as China sent a fleet of 18 ships to the waters north-east of Vanuatu to recover a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile that had splashed down there after a test flight. This was the PRC’s most ambitious naval expedition until that time.
But 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.
The risk should not be overstated: a single distant outpost such as this would be vulnerable. Moreover, even if it were to develop a substantial base, it would remain located in what for China will likely remain a strategic backwater.
The main game in a future confrontation between China and the US (or other major powers Japan and India) would be in East Asia, the South China Sea, or the Indian Ocean. So how much capability would Beijing ever really position in the tropical southern seas?
Yet however small the initial footprint, the establishment of a Chinese naval or air force presence in Vanuatu would be a negative turning point in Australian defence policy.
There is nothing between Vanuatu and Australia except the Coral Sea, a point historians of the Second World War will be quick to note. 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.
A Chinese military base in Vanuatu would mark an accumulative and long-term failure of bipartisan Australian policy, in terms consistently defined in every single Australian defence white paper as well as strategic guidance documents going back at least three decades, for instance in the Defence White Paper, 1987 under the Hawke government:
An unfriendly maritime power in the area could inhibit our freedom of movement through these approaches and could place in doubt the security of Australia's supply of military equipment and other strategic materiel from the United States.
And the Defence White Paper, 2016 under the Turnbull/Abbott governments:
Australia cannot be secure if our immediate neighbourhood including … Pacific Island Countries becomes a source of threat … This includes the threat of a foreign military power seeking influence in ways that could challenge the security of our maritime approaches.
Australian policymakers have plenty of reason not to provoke undue alarm over China’s behaviour. It is a tough and rather chilly time in the bilateral relationship, as both sides adjust to Canberra’s sustained assertion of the national interest against foreign influence and interference. No Australian government would want to make relations even tougher for no good reason.
In that spirit, let’s not leap to conclusions over these new media revelations. But let’s not dismiss them as groundless or paranoid, either.