| Stuff New Zealand | Edited extracts
WELLINGTON, NZ - When the media started reporting in 2018 that China might seek to use the Vanuatu wharf for military vessels, the foreign minister at the time, Ralph Regenvanu, denied this was a possibility.
“There was nothing in the contract around this idea that we would have to lose the wharf if we couldn’t pay back the loans.
“There was nothing at all like that in the contracts,” says Regenvanu, now the leader of Vanuatu’s opposition, in an interview with Stuff.
Instead, Vanuatu had pushed forward with the plan to borrow $130 million (K330 million) to build the 360-metre-long wharf in an effort to boost tourist numbers and improve logistics in Vanuatu’s second-largest city, Luganville. The wharf is thought to be one of the largest in the Pacific.
“We are interested in the sustainable development of our country and whoever can assist with that, we are friends to,” Regenvanu adds.
But as China’s Navy and Coast Guard continues to grow – it is now the largest in the world, according to a US Department of Defense report released late last year – expectations are increasing Beijing will want a base in the region.
The NZ Defence Assessment released last year listed this as a very real risk, without naming China.
If there was a war between the US and China, the island states are like stepping stones across the Pacific Ocean.
It is also important to note that Pacific governments are not bystanders and are strongly opposed to militarisation by any government in the region.
Regenvanu points out that while they are not interested in a Chinese military base in Vanuatu, they also don’t want increased US or Australian military presence.
“We are opposed to any militarisation of the Pacific and the militarisation of the Pacific continues,” he says, pointing the finger at the US, France and Australia.
He says it’s not in anyone's interest as it threatens sustainable development of Pacific countries.
Furthermore, most of the region, in part because of its history with nuclear testing, is vehemently opposed to nuclear weapons and has a treaty banning them in much of the South Pacific.
To date, plans in the Pacific centre around the upgrade of old infrastructure, which are aimed at benefiting development.
Plans are afoot to investigate an upgrade of the World War II-era runway and causeway on the tiny island of Kanton, Kiribati: population roughly 20 people.
Kanton is the furthest north of the islands in the Phoenix Islands and just 2,600 kilometres southwest of Hawaii, the headquarters of the US Navy’s Pacific fleet.
The fleet is made up of roughly 130,000 US Navy sailors and civilians; nearly 1,200 aircraft; 200 ships and submarines.
The Kiribati government says a new runway will facilitate high-end ecotourism on the island, and provide an alternative to the existing runways for both domestic and future international flights.
The Chinese Embassy in Kiribati says the project was initiated by the Kiribati government, not Beijing. They’re committed to providing assistance within the country’s capacity and without any political conditions. It is currently just at the feasibility stage.
But it still has people worried. Tessie Lambourne, leader of the opposition in Kiribati, says she can’t understand why the government would be interested in an infrastructure project given there is no one there.
“China is involved in the tuna industry – so I believe that’s where China’s interest in Kiribati comes into factor.
“But it leads to something more important for China and that is their strategic military interest in Kanton,” says Lambourne, who was the former Kiribati ambassador to Taiwan.
One challenge for Chinese military operations in Kiribati is a decades-old treaty between Kiribati and the US that prohibits any other countries from using old military installations on a number of the country’s islands without talking to Washington first.
Much of the fear relates to whether a port or airfield that can’t be paid for could fall into Chinese hands and eventually end up being used by the military.
Zong Bin, head of the political section of the Chinese Embassy in New Zealand says the assertion that China intends to build military bases in island countries is mindless speculation and reveals a “Cold War mentality.”
China’s military presence in the region has been growing.
Alongside medical ships and friendly naval visits, it was reported last year that two Chinese spy ships were in the region, ahead of military exercises between Australia and the US. One reportedly entered New Zealand’s economic zone.
Zong Bin says these reports “groundless”.
There have also been visits designed to boost China’s profile and build relationships between militaries.
In 2019, for instance, the chief of staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army visited Fiji.
There is now a two-way exchange program between Fiji’s and China’s police. Fijian police are offered training there, and senior Chinese police personnel have been seconded to Fiji.
Most recently, China announced plans to send police to train Solomon Islands forces, following the recent riots.
Peter Kenilorea Jr, a Solomon Islands politician and former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade, says this is something he is really worried about.
The country should be partnering with Australia and New Zealand, not China, he says, because of our shared values.
To counter China’s growth, the US, Australia and friends are boosting their own military presence in the region.
Along with the headline-grabbing AUKUS –a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States that will see Australia receive nuclear submarine technology – there has been an increased military presence in the Pacific.
The US is stepping up military activity around Palau; building a back-up airbase and do military training in Tinian, Northern Mariana Islands; and will increase the US military's presence in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).
Guam has long been referred to as the tip of the US spear, but the island chain of Micronesia is also part of that defence.
A bigger US presence here is supposed to stop China being able to easily move its military into the South Pacific, and at the same time allows US military to be stationed nearer potential tensions, for example, in the South China Sea or Taiwan.
Australia has also pushed ahead with the redevelopment of military infrastructure in the region – it has overhauled Blackrock Camp, a facility that supports Fiji’s security and military training requirements; is spending money improving barracks in Vanuatu and improving wharfs in Pacific countries so that the Guardian-class Patrol Boats can berth safely.
One of the bigger projects is the redevelopment and rehabilitation of the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, that is expected to cost up to $188 million (K480 million).
Royal Australian Navy research describes the island as a “geostrategic gateway to the South Pacific” which is “ideally positioned to support offensive, defensive or humanitarian operations in the region.”
For locals the redevelopment is welcome – it means jobs and money.
“We understand that it’s a naval project, we understand there will be restrictions, in as far as working there is concerned, but we are hopeful that employment opportunities will be there,” says Bab Korup, a Manus Island local who runs the ‘Manus Issues’ Facebook group.
He says that by June, the project is expected to employ 600 locals, which will be a boost for the economy.
Many on Manus Island worked for the Australian government at the offshore detention centre, but these jobs disappeared when the centre was closed down.
As the world has changed, war is not just guns, tanks and ships. The flow of information and misinformation is important.
One of the biggest challenges is that the cables that connect New Zealand and Australia to the rest of the world flow through the Pacific.
This poses two risks: cables could be physically cut or, if an adversary wanted to, they could censor, intercept or just stop information from getting through.
Captain James Fanell, the former director of intelligence and information operations at US Pacific Fleet, says of particular concern is China’s presence in the region, which gives access to the vital submarine lines that feed information to New Zealand and Australia.
As a result, Australia and the US have both moved to try to prevent ownership – and technology – from being Chinese.
Australia, Japan and the US are funding a cable for Micronesia, Kiribati Nauru, and Palau.
Australia picked up most of the bill for a cable for Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
In the process, Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei reportedly lost its contract to build the cable between the Solomon Islands and Australia.
“This area of the world – which is still largely dominated by the ocean – is still essentially the lifelines that connect Australia and New Zealand to the rest of the world,'' says Fanell.
Contributors: Rimon Rimon in Kiribati, Slone Fred in Vanuatu, Lucy Kopana in Papua New Guinea, Dorothy Wickman in the Solomon Islands
Funding: Asia New Zealand Foundation and the Pacific Cooperation Foundation. The money was used to pay journalists reporting in Kiribati, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands