HONG KONG / PEKIN (Reuters) – The islands of Vanuatu may appear as relative spots in the South Pacific Ocean, but for China's military strategists, they could provide a significant boost in Beijing's ability to project naval power.
Fairfax Media reported that China has approached Vanuatu to establish a permanent military presence there, saying that the possibility of such an installation has already alarmed high-ranking officials in Canberra and Washington.
The chancellor of Vanuatu denied that there had been such a discussion about a Chinese military base in the country. The Ministry of Defense of China said that the report of Fairfax "did not agree completely with the facts", whereas a spokesman of the Ministry of Outer Subjects said that the report was "false news".
Western and Asian military attachés say that a broad network of friendly bases and ports will be vital for China to fulfill its ambitions to become a navy blue navy, reflecting the kind of established reach that the US UU And his allies enjoyed a long time ago.
While they help project power and influence during peacetime, such facilities could also be vital in a conflict, they say.
Even a conflict located near the mainland of China over disputed East or South China seas could involve maneuvers away from its shores, either to protect command ships or break commercial transport blockades, for example.
Although far from the key sea routes and not as important as the ports of the Indian Ocean, Vanuatu would bring China to the coast of Australia, an important ally of the USA. UU And it would give a closer presence to the American base of Guam beyond the Asian chains that hem in Beijing.
Graeme Smith, an expert in Pacific affairs at the Australian National University, said a Chinese base in Vanuatu would send a strong message to Australia, the United States and its allies.
"It would be an incredibly aggressive signal for the United States and Australia that we're here, we're getting used to it," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Vanuatu was one of the first countries to recognize China's position in the South China Sea and remains the only Pacific nation that has done so.
Smith noted that Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai had visited China twice since he was elected in 2016, but had not yet visited Australia, "partly because he was not given priority on the Australian side."
"We are giving enough love, to put it bluntly".
"WAKE UP CALL"
If China were to build a base in the South Pacific, it would be only the second after the recent establishment of a logistics facility in the international port of Djibouti in the Indian Ocean.
China's lack of bases was exposed in 2014 when China's navy extended its supply and logistics lines to deploy 18 ships to search for a missing Malaysian plane at the southern tip of the Indian Ocean.
He was forced to seek replenishment in the west of the port of Albany, in Australia, to keep the rest of the operation operational, an option he could not trust in wartime.
Neither Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said it was natural for a major military power to explore options to expand its defense capabilities.
Ni, however, said that he did not consider Vanuatu as a natural option for a military base given the great distance from China, which would make it difficult to provide operational support in waters that he did not control.
Zhang Baohui, a continental security expert at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said that while China was thirsty for long-term bases and reliable ports, the Indian Ocean was a major priority.
"China has the right to seek bases as it expands its naval deployments, and has few options beyond smaller and poorer nations," he said. "I'm just not sure Vanuatu fully meets their needs."
Vanuatu, a former British Frankish colony previously known as the New Hebrides, housed a large US military base. UU During the Second World War with the aim of slowing the advance of the Japanese Army across the Pacific to Australia, 2,000 km (1,200 miles) to the west.
New Zealand-based security expert Marc Lanteigne said the Fairfax report, although unconfirmed, was "a wake-up call" to Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
"A Chinese base in Vanuatu would represent a significant strategic challenge for Australia and New Zealand in their backyard," said Lanteigne, a senior lecturer in security studies at Mbadey University in Auckland.
] Some badysts believe that Australia, France and New Zealand are likely to duplicate diplomatic efforts in the region to ensure that China's support is maintained.
A study by the Australian independent institute Lowy Institute urged Canberra to make greater efforts to deepen its traditional ties in the Pacific, noting China's growing influence and the "increasing risk of geostrategic competition in the region."
Reports by Greg Torode in Hong Kong and Philip Wen in Beijing; Additional reports from Christian Shepherd in Beijing. Editing by Lincoln Feast.
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