A Chinese embassy spokesman said yesterday that reports of a plan to establish a military base here in Vanuatu were ‘ridiculous’.
“That’s impossible”, said Chen Ke, a spokesman for the Ambassador.
A senior Vanuatu government advisor concurred: “That conversation was never on the table.” The advisor claimed detailed knowledge of relevant matters in two key ministries and insisted that the topic was never even hinted at. They went on to suggest that the source of the recent Fairfax Media story was not the Government of Vanuatu.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was in Vanuatu last Saturday, when she accompanied Prince Charles on a day-long visit. At the time, she appeared unconcerned by Chinese infrastructure investment.
Responding to a question from the Vanuatu Daily Post, she said, “We welcome further investment here in the Pacific from countries around the world. There’s a great need for more infrastructure spending in the Pacific, and Australia and New Zealand and other traditional donors here are welcoming new investment.”
Mr Chen insisted that China’s naval presence in the Pacific islands was humanitarian in nature. He cited an upcoming joint exercise between New Zealand, Vanuatu and China that will be gaming out a disaster response scenario.
The next scheduled visit for a naval vessel to Vanuatu, he said, would be in September when the full-service hospital ship Peace Ark is scheduled to arrive on a humanitarian visit. It first visited Vanuatu in September 2014. According to Chinese PLA Navy public relations, its capabilities are equivalent to a mid-size to large hospital in Beijing.
It contains equipment and facilities that are otherwise unavailable in the country, including a CAT scanner and advanced surgical facilities.
The ship’s last visit was immensely popular among residents of the capital. A public relations official estimated that nearly 5,000 people received consultation or treatment during the week-long visit. The population of Port Vila at the time was slight over 40,000.
Last June, a pair of PLA Navy 054A class frigate berthed side by side at Port Vila wharf for a four-day visit. A supply carrier stood off outside the harbour. They were diverted at the request of Chinese diplomatic officials while returning to China from New Zealand.
Chinese officials in Vanuatu emphasise their country’s commitment to development through trade and prosperity. They are quick to mention their support of sports and education, and point to the recently completed facilities that Vanuatu used to host the 2017 Pacific Mini Games, or to a massive upgrade to the country’s flagship secondary school, Malapoa College.
But a large chunk of Chinese infrastructure funding has been directed to strategically significant assets, including a large wharf facility on the island of Espiritu Santo, site of one of the largest military bases in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. Santo’s deep water harbour hosted as many as 100 warships at a time during the Solomon Islands campaign, and housed up to 100,00 Allied personnel. Nearly 1 million military personnel passed through the base during the war.
The sleepy northern town’s main road is still renowned as being big enough to for a battle tank to perform a U-turn.
The recently completed wharf project there was contracted to the Shanghai Construction Group. The 300+ metre long wharf can safely accommodate two mid-size ships simultaneously, or one large vessel. The largest to berth there to date is the cruise ship Voyager of the Seas, with 4,000 passenger capacity, and 1,200 staff and crew. On its maiden visit to the new wharf, the ship’s captain described it as one of the best in the Pacific.
But China is not the only nation funding strategically significant infrastructure. Japan has just completed construction of a US $70 million wharf upgrade in the capital. The World Bank is providing over US $60 million for major upgrades to the country’s three main airports. This number could rise to $150 million if additional proposals receive government approval.