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China in the Pacific: where there’s smoke, there’s mirrors

Professor Jon Fraenkel

JON FRAENKEL | East Asia Forum

WELLINGTON, NZ - A Fairfax news report that ‘preliminary discussions’ were held between the Chinese and Vanuatu governments about the establishment of a naval base at a Beijing-funded wharf in Luganville is causing quite a stir in Australia.

The US$87 million wharf was funded by a loan from China’s EXIM bank to allow cruise ships to dock on the island. But some US and Australian intelligence analysts fear that it could provide port facilities for Chinese warships less than 2,000 kilometres from Australia’s east coast.

While the original Sydney Morning Herald story acknowledged that there had as yet been ‘no formal proposals’, that qualification vanished in The Diplomat’s report that China had ‘formally approached’ Vanuatu about a “permanent military base”.

“Clearly the Chinese are serious about establishing a military base in the Pacific,” claimed Malcolm Davis from the Department of Defence-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute, speculating “my guess is there’s a Trojan horse operation here that eventually will set up a large facility that is very modern and very well-equipped”.

Even Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull expressed “grave concern” about the risk of a Chinese naval facility in the Oceania region.

Yet the story has been repeatedly denied by Vanuatu’s prime minister Charlot Salwai and foreign minister Ralph Regenvanu, who both insist that no-one in the Vanuatu government has ever talked to Beijing about a Chinese military base.

Both recall the Cold War hysteria surrounding Soviet fishing deals with Kiribati and Vanuatu in the 1980s, when reports claimed that Moscow’s fishing trawlers were concealing ‘elaborate antennae arrays’ and ‘underwater acoustic monitoring devices’.

In a 1988 article entitled, ‘The USSR and its Proxies in a Volatile South Pacific’, Monash University’s Colin Rubenstein speculated that these incursions might be only a prelude to the “establishment of safe, deep sanctuary for Soviet nuclear-armed submarines” enabling them to “loiter safely in a very well protected position and be capable of attacking almost any target in the area of the Pacific Rim”.

In 1985, then Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser insisted that “the Soviets are going to get a base in the Pacific with absolute certainty”. This proved to be nonsense.

So what was the origin of the Luganville story, and does China really want a base in the Pacific Islands?

The original Fairfax story cited unnamed sources but described them as “senior security officials” and said that discussions about the threat had occurred at the “highest levels in Canberra and Washington”.

The harbour master at the Luganville wharf said that US marines and coastguards had visited the wharf in February and remarked: “Wow, this can accommodate a US aircraft carrier”.

Others are less impressed. Local Australian tourism operators reported in January 2018 that the wharf is badly constructed with weak and poorly positioned bollards and that the volume of traffic at the port had recently declined.

If seeking a Pacific naval base, why would Beijing choose the Luganville wharf rather than better equipped port facilities in Papua New Guinea, Tonga or Fiji?

The Fairfax news stories claimed that the 360-metre long Luganville wharf is the “longest in the South Pacific”. But Fiji’s Kings Wharf at Suva measures 492 metres and is far more sophisticated. The four berths of Papua New Guinea’s Lae Port extend 575 metres and those at Port Moresby 642 metres.

Tonga’s deep water Neiafu harbour may be smaller but it was once a much sought-after prize in the 1900s colonial carve up of the Pacific as a coaling station for oceangoing steamships. Tonga is also facing serious debt distress and around two thirds of what it owes is earmarked for China.

Australian security analysts fear China’s use of debt-trap diplomacy in the Pacific on the model of Sri Lanka, where the price of debt relief was the surrender of a strategic port.

Yet in the case of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port — handed to China on a 99-year lease in December 2017 — the site straddles China’s sea routes to the Middle East and Europe. This is also true of China’s only established extra-territorial naval base in Djibouti.

The Pacific Islands fit less easily into China’s geopolitical architecture.

So far China’s maritime aspirations have focussed on its close coastal waters, the South China Sea and trade routes through Southeast Asia to the Middle East and Europe.

Beijing’s naval prowess amounts to little beyond the so-called ‘second island chain’ — a phrase that featured prominently in Chinese Cold War naval manuals and which conveys Chinese fears of encirclement by US territories and allies.

The ‘first island chain’ skirts Taiwan and the South China Sea. Further outwards, a second ‘chain’ stretches from Japan to Guam (a US territory) and Palau (a country ‘freely associated’ with the United States).

In the more distant blue-water Pacific, the Chinese navy sails only sporadically via low-profile port visits mostly to closely allied nations such as Fiji or Tonga.

In response to the furore about the Luganville wharf, Vanuatu’s new broom reformist foreign minister Regenvanu pointed to his country’s traditionally non-aligned stance, while prime minister Salwai said he would “fiercely oppose any attempt to build a military base in the country”.

They both might have added that back in the 1980s, Vanuatu — like many other Pacific island states — did rather well out of obtaining foreign assistance by playing on the rivalries of the Cold War era. They may now be in a good position to do so again.

Jon Fraenkel is a professor of comparative politics at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand


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