China Wants Vanuatu–Australia Had Better Stop Them


Most people know of Vanuatu as either a popular vacation spot in the South Pacific or the site of the famous early 2000 television series, Survivor: Vanuatu. Yet, this bucolic setting in the tranquil South Pacific happens to also be situated very near Australia, as well as being in a geographically beneficial spot for space monitoring and, potentially, rocket launches. It is the geostrategic value of Vanuatu, a quiet little country of 750,000 inhabitants, that has Western strategists most concerned. For, you see, recently it was revealed that the People’s Republic of China has been meeting covertly with representatives of the Vanuatu government to discuss the possibilities of leasing territory in the country to build a military base. Now, both the Vanuatu and Chinese governments deny this, but despite the denials from the two governments (which should be expected), this potential development is in keeping with Chinese foreign policy preferences.

China is intent on reconstituting its old empire–only this time, they want to make it bigger and take it farther than it ever was before. Thus, they have gone from having zero overseas bases for the duration of its 3,000-year history to having one in Djibouti, Ethiopia. From that naval base in Djibouti, the Chinese military has access to a vital international shipping lane, and they are able to exert their influence over geostrategically vital parts of Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean. A base on Vanuatu, at the southern edge of the South China Sea, would confer upon China similar strategic advantages. Not only could they place naval assets there, but they could also construct vital listening posts; they could track sensitive satellites in space; and, as noted above, they could even begin testing their newest rockets from there, which are intended to take Chinese taikonauts to the Moon and beyond.

As Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told the South China Morning Post recently:

“It’s possible to build a surveillance facility, and is certainly within Beijing’s financial and technical means to do so. The only hurdles are political […] If the facility has a dual use, both civilian and military, then the picture becomes murky. This will often allow a project to slip through strict scrutiny.”

Vanuatu’s repeated denials that they are planning to allow for China to build such a facility on their territory notwithstanding, the tiny country is beholden to China for critical infrastructure projects and other economic development deals, on the order of around $243 million–a relationship that has been cultivated since 2006. While Vanuatu may be closer geographically to Australia, Canberra’s relationship with Vanuatu is not comparable to the Sino-Vanuatu relationship in any way.

And, to Collin Koh Swee Lean’s point: dual-use is precisely what the proposed facility would be. After all, the Chinese are masters of asymmetrical warfare; they understand that building military bases that far removed from their traditional areas of control would necessitate a harsh response on the part of the West. Australia, a vital trading partner for China in the region, has already started balancing against China with the United States (although, as an American, I remain skeptical of the Australian commitment to standing in solidarity with the United States on rolling back Chinese irredentism in the region, as I argued here last year).

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Image courtesy of The Guardian. This photo is from a recent port call made the by a Chinese frigate to Vanuatu.

The Chinese understand–just as previous empires throughout history did–that wherever their trade goes, their military can soon follow. This is precisely how the Chinese inserted themselves in geostrategic areas, such as Djibouti, or in Gwadar, or in Sri Lanka. It’s how they are attempting to gain access to the Eastern Mediterranean, in ports like Piraeus and Trieste, for example. Their modus operandi is very simple (but effective) to follow. They come at these beleaguered, smaller countries with sweetheart trade deals, enmesh them in an almost-exclusive trade relationship, and then pressure those countries to consent to dual-use facilities in their territory–lest those countries lose those vital, sweetheart deals with Beijing. This is precisely what is (and will) happen with Vanuatu.

Presently, tensions between the United States and China are at an all-time high. There is a quasi-trade war occurring; the Chinese, as David P. Goldman insists, are intent on acting as both the arsonist and fire brigade when it comes to reining in North Korea; the Chinese have engaged in an unremitting campaign of industrial espionage, cyber warfare, and other nefarious activities; China is now the second-largest economy in the world (according to GDP); Shanghai and not Silicon Valley is set to be the world’s leading tech innovation hub by 2020. I could go on, but clearly you can see how all of these activities run counter to American interests.

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Photo courtesy of Reuters. This American satellite imagery shows a 40-ship flotilla, led by China’s aircraft carrier, conducting a major exercise off the coast of Hainan Island.

More importantly, tensions between the West and China over the South China Sea are exponentially increasing. Recently, the People’s Liberation Army Navy conducted a massive naval exercise off the coast of Hainan Island. Not long thereafter, the American aircraft carrier, the aptly-named USS Teddy Roosevelt, completed a major military exercise near the Philippines.

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Photo courtesy of Business Insider. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Halsey (DDG 97) and USS Preble (DDG 88) sail behind the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) as escorts in the South China Sea, March 24, 2018.

The situation between the United States and China will not de-escalate. This is the beginnings of a real and long-term strategic rivalry. China’s attempt to build up its presence in Vanuatu is an attempt to place itself very near to Australia, a critical link in the growing American presence in the Asia-Pacific, and at the same time to place a proverbial stake outlining the extent of their desired empire. From Djibouti to Gwadar to the Tumen River Valley to Vanuatu in the South Pacific, China considers that entire stretch of water to be within its sphere of influence. This is an historic event for Chinese strategists, who until recently, always kept their ambitions closer to home.

In the words of Rory Metcalf of Australia National University’s National Security College:

“any future naval or airbase 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.”

Until recently, that part of the world was relatively closed to China’s military. Now, thanks to its assiduous building of ties with the Vanuatu government, China will have unprecedented situational awareness in that region. For Australia, it has long been a strategic objective to prevent any foreign power from being able to project force into their territory from the surrounding environs, the way that the Japanese Empire was able to do during the Second World War. China is upending this strategic goal. As the Sydney Morning Herald noted recently, “there is nothing between Vanuatu and Queensland” except for the Coral Sea–and that’s hardly a defensible position for a great power, like Australia to be in.

The Chinese base in Djibouti is more than just an influential intelligence post or small port for some warships to dock at. Their base can hold upwards of 10,000 Chinese marines. At the far side of the Indian Ocean, the Indian government knows full well that this move was primarily directed at them, as they become a key ally for the United States in its budding competition with China. Australia in the South Pacific is becoming a similar factor for American grand strategy. In fact, last November American policymakers were quite vocal about their desire to create quadrilateral alliance between the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan in what the Trump Administration absurdly referred to as the, “Indo-Pacific.” Make no mistake: any potential Chinese base at Vanuatu would have comparable capabilities to its base in Djibouti. The point is to outflank both Australia and the United States.

Don’t forget: Australia has become a hub for United States Marines transiting into the region (in Darwin). What’s more, the United States has turned its protectorate of Guam into a massive island-fortress. By placing Chinese forces in Vanuatu, Guam will be outflanked and mostly surrounded by enemy forces. This is classic imperial geopolitics on the part of the Chinese.

Even without the direct military implications, the Chinese presence on Vanuatu and throughout the island chains of the South Pacific would seriously undermine the political status quo there on the diplomatic front. Presently, the South Pacific islands are united along with Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific Islands Forum. While this group is not as influential as, say, ASEAN, it is an important part of Australian foreign policy. And, Australia has traditionally dominated this forum. However, as China’s presence in the region increases, it’s conceivable that the Chinese would desire an active role there.

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The Pacific Islands Forum as it is presently structured.

The Australians need to figure out how they are going to respond. As it stands, they cannot look to the United States for any consistent backup, because the U.S. is simply far too distracted (just as it was during Obama’s ill-fated “pivot”) to be of any use. Australia is in China’s crosshairs and, if they’re not careful, they may find themselves in a position where they are quasi-vassal state of China, as Beijing extends its reach–and closes off the region to the West.

Canberra had also better pay closer attention to Chinese moves in the South Pacific. For, not only is Vanuatu up for grabs, but so too is Rabaul, on the island of New Britain in the country of Papua New Guinea. The Australians have not done a sufficient job of paying attention to their near-abroad and it may soon cost them dearly–and the United States. One thing is certain, however, China is intent on expanding its reach throughout the world–and they won’t tread lightly any longer.

We’d better get ready.

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