Australia wary of China’s growing stake in the South Pacific

Australia wary of China’s growing stake in the South Pacific

China’s growing interest in the South Pacific will concern key Australian political and defence officials. Although its interests remain purely economic at present, Beijing may opt to establish a military base in this region in the future. Should this happen, Canberra will have a firm action plan in place designed to counter China’s influence and reinforce Australia’s regional preeminence.

Recent rumours that China plans to build a military base in Vanuatu will be concerning to diplomats in Canberra. Discussing the implications for Australia’s defence planning, Paul Dibb argued in The Strategist that over thirty years ago Australia had foreseen the rise of an ‘unfriendly maritime power’ in the South Pacific. This power would restrict key trade routes off Australia’s east coast and possibly align with other regional states hostile to Australia’s interests – rendering a power shift in the South Pacific.

Although China has denied those rumours, it will likely continue to exert its influence through economic and political means in the South Pacific. Aware of these risks, and regardless of the close economic ties between Canberra and Beijing, Australia will take steps to ensure that its South Pacific foreign policy and military capabilities are adjusted accordingly.

China’s ‘debt diplomacy’ in the South Pacific

The prospect of a Chinese military base on Vanuatu poses significant problems for Australian and US interests. It would allow China to project its military power into the Pacific Ocean and challenge the US’s control of that ocean. This increases the risk of confrontation between China and the US, and by extension challenges Australia’s core defence policy. Control of Vanuatu would also prove strategically useful for China, allowing it to outflank the US forces on Guam in the event of a confrontation.

If and when Beijing pursues this South Pacific strategy, it will not be realised overnight – but incrementally. It would begin with an agreement permitting Chinese naval ships to dock periodically and be serviced, refuelled and restocked. Beijing would likely facilitate this through its policy of ‘debt diplomacy’ – huge investment in infrastructure projects in return for political and military influence. In short, Beijing would present itself as a valuable economic ally to Vanuatu in return for closer security cooperation.

China’s efforts in Vanuatu and surrounding countries have not gone unnoticed. China has funded a number of projects in Vanuatu like the new $90 million wharf in Luganville on the North Island of Espiritu Santo. This economic diplomacy will unsettle Australian government officials. They will be eager to match Beijing’s efforts and ensure that Australia remains a key economic and security ally to Vanuatu.

Australia’s key policy objectives: Vanuatu and the South Pacific

To offset any future changes in the power dynamic in the South Pacific, the Australian government will likely prioritise three policy objectives:

  • strengthening regional institutions;
  • increasing the capabilities of the Australian navy;
  • and promoting Australia’s credibility as a regional economic and security partner to Vanuatu.

Australia will seek to play a leading role in discussions regarding regional economic and security issues. Within the Pacific Islands Forum and the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, Australian diplomats will be diligent in building relationships and promoting Canberra’s credibility across the region. A special focus will be placed on ensuring that Australia is seen as Vanuatu’s first choice for economic and national security matters.

Australian military staff will have been briefed on developing new forms of regional security engagement. Increased naval exercises with close regional allies are a possibility given the recent altercation between Chinese and Australian naval vessels in the South China Sea. Although intended as a deterrent, in the unlikely event of hostile engagement these alliances could form the basis of a maritime strike force.

Generally speaking, Australia has committed to increasing its military budget. This includes designing 12 new submarines and investing in enhanced air, missile and electronic warfare capabilities. Senate crossbenchers also recently proposed a new law that seeks to revive Australia’s domestic warship-building industry.

For now, dialogue is key

Overall, it is important to acknowledge that Australia’s security circumstances would change dramatically if China established a military base in Vanuatu. Such a move from Beijing would be dominantly framed as a direct challenge to Australia/US hegemony in the region. Canberra would be forced to reconsider its relationship with Beijing.

Granted, this has not happened yet. China is still Australia’s largest trading partner and is responsible for one third of Australia’s export dollars. Beijing would certainly become irked if Australia substantially beefs up its South Pacific military presence off the back of rumours. For now, effective diplomacy and negotiations will be utilised to ‘manage’ the conversation. Ministers will be concerned that Canberra’s actions do not have a negative impact on some of Australia’s manufacturing and resource industries reliant on Chinese investment.

Nevertheless, the establishment of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti was not an isolated event. Chinese President Xi Jinping will continually look for ways to solidify China’s power on an evolving global stage, and establishing a military base in the South Pacific is central to achieving this. Regardless of the relatively strong bilateral relations at present, Australian defence chiefs will be prepared for the moment when, or if, the superpower that is locked in a rivalry for global dominance with Australia’s closest rival comes knocking.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Nick Derewlany

Nick is a graduate from the University of Sydney with a BSc in Political, Economic and Social Sciences, and currently lives and works in London. He focuses on geopolitics and the impacts of technology on the human condition.