Reports of Chinese plans for military expansion across the developing world have come under attack after an Australian newspaper claimed Vanuatu was in talks with Beijing about hosting troops on the island state.
The government in Port Vila has denied the story, but Australia confirmed that its diplomats in Washington have met with US officials over the matter.
Vanuatu — made up of 82 islands stretching 1400 kilometres across the South Pacific – was known in Commonwealth circles as Zimbabwe’s “twin” after both achieved independence within weeks of each other in 1980.
Robert Mugabe and Vanuatu’s first prime minister, Father Walter Lini, became friends and were often seen together at Commonwealth summits. And both presided over increasingly despotic regimes. Lini resigned after a vote of no confidence in 1991, but Mugabe would continue until the army forced him from power in 2017.
Beijing’s influence across Africa and the Pacific has been on the rise, and President Donald Trump has voiced concern over Chinese military expansion around the world.
Last year, China finished work on its military barracks in Djibouti on the horn of Africa, with capacity for up to 10 000 personnel, more than the combined number of soldiers and special forces at the French and US bases in the country.
Djibouti sits on a narrow strait at the only entry point from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and Suez and was the first foreign outpost for China.
Vanuatu, formerly the New Hebrides, was a joint French and British colony until independence. It is among Australia’s closest neighbours and lies east of the Solomon Islands which has angered China by maintaining diplomatic links with Taiwan.
Vanuatu says there has been “no talk” of a base, but concedes that Chinese warships have visited the island, and that loans from Beijing make up more than half its foreign borrowings.
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London on 20 April, UK foreign minister Boris Johnson announced plans to open an embassy in Port Vila. His office said this would “put Britain in peak position to enhance military cooperation and trade”.
At the same event, the prime minister of Vanuatu, Mr Charlot Salwai, ruled out a military base but said that China had financed and built a new wharf, the longest in the region and capable of docking military vessels. However, he said it would only be used for cruise liners.
But the US Pacific fleet commander, Admiral Scott Swift, accused China of “coercive economic action”.
China, he said, made a habit of easy loans, only to “ask for something in return that was not part of the original negotiation”.
Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop visited Port Vila with Prince Charles in early April ahead of CHOGM.
Since the end of World War ll, Washington and Canberra have enjoyed a military dominance across the Pacific.
While the White House has yet to comment on Vanuatu, concern has been raised about a build-up of Chinese forces in Djibouti. Like Vanuatu, Djibouti has borrowed heavily from Beijing, with a debt estimated at more than 70 per cent of the country’s GDP.
Fears over US base in Africa
Senator Ted Cruz who serves on the Armed Forces Committee and was a frontrunner in the Rupublican presidential race of 2016, said Chinese expansion was “placing US security at risk”.
In both Vanuatu and Djibouti, China has recently built new homes for senior government officials.
The Pentagon operates its only permanent military base in Africa from Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, but Senator Cruz said the lease on that facility could be in jeopardy after President Ismaïl Guelleh cancelled a similar agreement with Dubai firm DP World to run the country’s container port.
DP World is demanding compensation but Djibouti has accused it of breaching key terms of the contract, a claim the company denies. With most media in the country under state control, the firm says it has been unable to put its side of the story.
There have been concerns in Washington that Djibouti could revoke the lease on Camp Lemonier though President Guelleh has given an assurance that he remains committed to the United States.
However, in a letter seen by The Zimbabwean — addressed to the head of the Central Intelligence Agency and senior members Donald Trump’s cabinet — Senator Cruz said he was “concerned Mr Guelleh could break this agreement should his Chinese patrons call in another debt, leaving the United States limited in our ability to project power.”
From Djibouti, US forces operate against terror groups across East Africa, Somalia and the Middle East.Post published in: Featured