China: losing Vanuatu—history repeats itself
See the video at the foot of this article about China’s move on Timor leste in 2010 when Labor dithered over giving Timor a couple of our old patrol boats. China saw the opportunity and seized the day with new boats, full training and a $9 million military complex to boot. Now, with the surprise (not) of China in Vanuatu, this all churned merrily away while Turnbull fully occupied and steered the nation, as he boasted, to the euphoric SSM victory. Australia is indeed a bloody joke. China plays the long game and can’t believe how easily it can win that game. Only now do we hear that wretched Julie Bishop chirping that we should have done more in Vanuatu.
Australia’s biggest policy failing in the Pacific at present is a crushing lack of imagination and a deep-seated fear of taking any action that a Sir Humphrey could describe to his minister as “courageous”. Take that Chinese-built 360m wharf at Luganville in Vanuatu, forever to lie mostly idle. Built at a cost of $114 million in the form of soft loans from Beijing, the wharf should be hosting a visit from one of our Canberra-class helicopter carriers this minute.
Source: News Corp
Vanuatu: China gains from our neglect of the Pacific
We should be striking a deal with the Vanuatu government to locate permanently one of our larger patrol boats at Port Vila, to team with the smaller vessel we will give Vanuatu in the next few years.
We, not the Chinese, should be using our aid money to build Government House in Vanuatu — one where the lights really will come on. Every Vanuatuan prime minister and every serious aspirant for the job should be red-carpeted through Canberra’s halls of power, making sure that when Port Vila thinks about security, they pick up the phone to Australia rather than Beijing or ne’er-do-wells in Moscow.
None of that is happening. Instead, on April 7 we staged a lightning visit by that noted Australian strategist, Prince Charles, along with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Perhaps she gave a box of foreign policy white papers to Vanuatu’s President Tallis Obed Moses, the better to explain Australia’s deep affection for the rule of law and the shared democratic values that bind our two peoples.
Malcolm Turnbull said this week, “We put a great effort into the Pacific Islands region”, and that the islands “are looking to us” for investment in economic infrastructure. But the strength of our leadership in the Pacific is vastly overstated. In fact, Vanuatu’s total investment in Australia at $126m is larger than our total investment in Vanuatu — $116m in 2016. Sure, we are Vanuatu’s biggest trading partner: our largest export to it is alcoholic beverages ($4.3m last year); our fourth largest is tobacco ($2.9m).
The reality is that Australia’s strategic leadership in the Pacific is on autopilot. We and the New Zealanders will always be the partner of choice when it comes to disaster relief — we spent $35m on helping Vanuatu to recover from Tropical Cyclone Pam in 2015. But none of this can compete with a cashed-up China, which spends money to promote its long-term strategic goals and buys political backing with breathtakingly cynical corruption.
Notwithstanding the denials from Port Vila and Beijing, it is certain that the People’s Liberation Army Navy was exploring the possibility of establishing a military base in Vanuatu. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: the Chinese are working to a long-term but visible strategy of extending the reach of their military forces. This is the armed counterpart to the Belt and Road strategy, as a part of which Beijing encourages approved Chinese companies to buy and build port, road and rail infrastructure through Central Asia and the Pacific and Indian oceans, financed by soft loans that can be hard to repay.
The PLAN base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, is a model of what might have emerged in Vanuatu and it will be copied elsewhere. The base was opened in 2016 and is designed to support Chinese naval activity in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The PLAN cut its teeth in long-distance force projection by engaging in multinational counter-piracy operations around the Horn of Africa in the early 2000s, but there is little doubt the strategic purpose of the base is to protect Chinese trade routes and support Beijing’s requirements to evacuate so-called “overseas Chinese” from trouble spots, as happened in Libya in 2014.
A Chinese naval base in Vanuatu would be able, in the short term, to perform similar functions. Beijing evacuated overseas Chinese from Solomon Islands in 2006, when rioting in Honiara destroyed much of the city’s Chinatown.
But there’s much more to the PLAN’s strategic thinking than pre-positioning some ships and equipment to deal with local trouble spots. The core long-term objectives are to weaken America’s capacity to move naval forces closer to the Chinese mainland and obtain access to the deepwater Pacific with its nuclear-armed ballistic missile-carrying submarines, and to weaken the US alliance structure. Giving US partners problems to focus on close to home distracts and weakens the overall alliance structure.
None of this is particularly secret. In fact, there is a huge volume of writing in Chinese military journals setting out in precise terms how the PLAN wants to operate in the Pacific in coming decades. An essential first step, now mostly completed, was to gain control of the air and sea space in the South China Sea, turning that region into a no-go area for US aircraft carrier battle groups. Hainan island at the north of the South China Sea houses China’s major ballistic missile submarine base, so an essential PLAN role in any conflict against the US would be to keep the US Navy as far from that location as possible.
According to a recent article in The China Quarterly, researchers from the PLAN’s Qingdao submarine academy say the Chinese submarine force intends to increasingly operate in the “far seas” and that submarines “will form the assassin’s mace force of our navy’s expansion into the deep oceans for defence combat”; they point to the South Pacific as the optimal patrol area for Chinese nuclear submarines.
This is not to suggest Chinese submarines will be visiting Port Vila any time soon. That’s the 20-year objective. In the interim, the PLAN aim is to get the region used to the presence of visiting Chinese warships and to expand logistical support capabilities as widely as possible.
I can guarantee those initial visits to Vanuatu will be benign — imagine white-hulled hospital ships visiting to fit Ni-Vanuatu children with orthodontic braces.
Australia’s challenge is to think in decade-long timescales, as Chinese strategic planners routinely do. What could the PLAN do to complicate Australian and US military activities in the Coral Sea? One idea might be to pre-position sea mines at the naval base, which can be placed in harm’s way by specially adapted fishing boats.
Or imagine the panic in Canberra if China decided to locate an over-the-horizon backscatter radar in Vanuatu looking west. That system can identify targets between 1000km and 4000km away, effectively covering all of Australia’s east coast military bases.
A preposterous suggestion? Hardly; China has deployed three such radars in its own territory since 2005, including one looking over the South China Sea.
Just as in World War II, Vanuatu and indeed all the Melanesian islands are vital strategic geography for Australia. A Chinese base there would seriously complicate Australian and US military activities on our east coast. That’s why China wants to put one there.
More strategic leadership is needed from Australia in the Pacific. Even at the painful price of spending money, deploying expensive military ships and aircraft, and sending military officers to island postings, we need to offer the Pacific Island states genuine leadership through the closest possible co-operation on national security — theirs as well as ours. “Courageous indeed, minister!”
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary for strategy in the Department of Defence.