Reports of China’s plans to establish a military base in Vanuatu have been met with stern criticism from Australia politicians, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull labelling it a "great concern” and the opposition chastising the government’s current policy in relation to the south Pacific. But Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne has backed the government’s investment in aid and Defence in the south Pacific.
Malcolm Turnbull issued a warning to China not to establish a military base in Vanuatu this week, arguing it would disrupt the "peace and stability" of the region.
"The maintenance of peace and stability in the Pacific is of utmost importance to us, to Australia, it’s one of the key priorities of our Foreign Policy White Paper," the Prime Minister said. "We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific Island countries and neighbours of ours."
But Vanuatu has maintained that no approach from China has been made.
“No one in the Vanuatu government has ever talked about a Chinese military base in Vanuatu of any sort," Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu told ABC radio.
"We are a non-aligned country. We are not interested in militarisation, we are just not interested in any sort of military base in our country."
Defence and national security experts have said the establishment of a military base in Vanuatu would allow China to project its military power into the Pacific Ocean and usurp Australia as a regional power. Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne rejected such notions.
Speaking on Adelaide radio, Minister Pyne said China's interest in expanding its influence across the globe is to be expected but has maintained Australia is still the regional power in the south Pacific. While Australia has cut funding to aid since the Abbott government was elected in 2013, and China has increased its spending on south Pacific nations, Minister Pyne said Australia still remains the largest benefactor to these nations.
"We fully understand that China wants to spread its influence around the world, it would be surprising if it didn’t, it’s the second largest economy in the world and one of the largest militaries in the world and 1.2 billion people, they are a very significant country in our world," explained Minister Pyne.
"Now, we take the south Pacific very seriously, it’s our region of greatest influence, we are by far and away the largest donor and investor in the south Pacific, we have a significant presence there from a point of view of working with those countries on border protection."
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Australia is also stepping up its contribution to the needs of south Pacific nations' defence, with the Pacific Patrol Boat Replacement Program (PPBR) well underway. The PPBR will see 21 steel vessels, designed and constructed by Austal, delivered to up to 13 Pacific island nations from late 2018.
"In my own portfolio we’re giving them 21 Pacific Patrol Boats across the south Pacific, I’m giving the first one to Papua New Guinea at the end of the year to help us to protect them from illegal fishers, environmental vandals and so forth," Minister Pyne said.
"And we would take very seriously any attempt to establish a military base in Vanuatu, but I would point out the government of Vanuatu says they’ve had no such approach and therefore it’s rather a moot point. I’m going to Vanuatu at the end of the year as part of a mission there and I’ll of course be talking to them."