Vanuatu has ruled out ever allowing China to build a military base on its shores, going to great pains to assure Australia the idea was never been raised.
The assurances followed reports last week that security officials were worried about China’s intentions in Vanuatu.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull met with Prime Minister Charlot Salwai in London on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) forum in London this week to discuss the matter.
Mr Salwai said he had worked in government for 27 years, as an adviser and member of parliament, and the idea of a Chinese military base had never been raised.
“I attend a lot of meetings, was [never] in our discussion. Was never in our negotiations,” he told reporters in London on Wednesday.
Mr Salwai said he had raised this with Mr Turnbull in their bilateral meeting.
“I want to assure the Prime Minister that Vanuatu was never dreaming to become a military base one day,” he said.
“I rule out, I rule out.
“It is not in our culture, it is not in our tradition.
“We are the happiest people, and I think that’s enough for us.”
China is building a wharf in Vanuatu funded by a concessional loan, but Mr Salwai said the loan was cheaper than the one Japan offered when the Port Vila wharf was built.
China has said reports it wants a military base in Vanuatu are “sheer fiction” from troublemakers.
“The Prime Minister of Vanuatu has made it very clear, quite unequivocally, that the media reports about Chinese interest in establishing a military base in Vanuatu have no basis in fact,” Mr Turnbull told reporters.
“He said those reports are absolutely untrue.”
Mr Salwai thanked Australia for its support in education, health and justice, but said he would like help building the new police academy.
“Because we want to keep Vanuatu as a destination for investors, but also for tourists … Vanuatu must be ready to be a country of law and order,” he said.
China had been more engaged with the Pacific recently and its naval ships visited Vanuatu in 2017, but those sorts of visits were normal for all nations to conduct, Foriegn Minister Julie Bishop said last week.
The Lowy Institute’s Pacific islands expert, Jonathan Pryke, said the new Luganville wharf development had “raised eyebrows in defence, intelligence and diplomatic circles” in Australia.
Ms Bishop said while China was investing in infrastructure around the world, in had to date only established one military base — in Djibouti in northern Africa.
Mr Turnbull has also met with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela to discuss Australia’s support for a new telecommunications cable, as well as energy and mining investments.
The cable will connect Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands with Australia.
“That is going to deliver enormous benefits to both countries, but particularly the Solomon Islands, and significantly reduce the cost of telecommunications there,” Mr Turnbull said.