The United States has conducted a survey of a Chinese-funded wharf in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, the U.S. Marine Corps said on April 14.
The wharf had been the subject of a recent report that China is planning to establish a permanent military base on Vanuatu.
Both Vanuatu and China have denied the report amid heightened tensions with the United States over China’s activity in the South China Sea.
U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Curtis L. Hill told Reuters by email that a small contingent of Marines from 1 Marine Expeditionary Force based in California had conducted a site survey in preparation for a military exercise in the South Pacific to be held by U.S. forces later this year.
“The site survey was conducted due to the likely participation of a Military Sealift Command support vessel in the exercise,” he said.
There is heightened interest in the wharf in Luganville town because it could be big enough to allow warships to dock at it. Its primary use is to cater for cargo vessels and ferries.
A U.S. Department of State official confirmed the U.S. government had learned about the Australian news report and was trying to verify its credibility, reported The New York Times.
Kalfau Kaloris, Vanuatu’s high commissioner in Canberra, Australia’s capital, said his country’s Foreign Ministry was “not aware of any such proposal” to build a Chinese military base, while the spokeswoman for the Chinese embassy in Canberra declined to comment, reported The Sydney Morning Herald on April 9.
Vanuatu’s government has insisted it had not discussed with Beijing the possibility of establishing a permanent military base, but senior Australian officials have said they are aware of China’s entreaties for a South Pacific beachhead, reported the Australian Financial Review.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has warned China against such actions. “We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbors of ours,” he said.
Australian lawmakers also expressed their concern about potential Chinese activity. Western Australia parliament representative and former army officer Andrew Hastie told The Australian Financial Review that since World War II, Vanuatu has been critical to Australia’s national security. “The geography has not changed. The development of a Chinese military base in Vanuatu would leave Australia strategically isolated,” he said.
Meanwhile, former general and senator for New South Wales Jim Molan said, “It would appear there is a pattern from China, just as there is from Russia, of a lack of respect for the international order.”
Vanuatu, about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) east of northern Australia, has a population of about 270,000. During World War II, it was home to a key U.S. Navy base that helped beat back the Japanese army as the latter advanced through the Pacific toward Australia.
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, China has been financing Vanuatu with hundreds of millions of dollars for building its infrastructure. As a result, China accounts for nearly half of Vanuatu’s $440 million foreign debt.
With other countries in the Indian Ocean that China has sought to exert influence over—chiefly through its One Belt, One Road initiative, China has paid for such projects with large Chinese loans that local governments have difficulty repaying. When the debt burden becomes too high, the government often chooses to allow the Chinese regime a controlling interest in the project, in exchange for writing off the debt.
Early last year, Beijing also donated 14 military vehicles to Vanuatu.
Reuters contributed to this report.
From The Epoch Times