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Groundbreaking ceremony at opening of a new complex at the Chinese Embassy in Vanuatu, 2015 (Image by Chinese Foreign Ministry via fmprc.gov.cn)

Should Australia be concerned about a rumoured Chinese military expansion in the Pacific? Or is it yet another distraction from the Government’s domestic problems? Political editor Dr Martin Hirst investigates.

ON MONDAY this week. the Fairfax papers and websites ran an “exclusive” story with the alarming headline 'China eyes Vanuatu military base in plan with global ramifications' — but is the story accurate? The lead par was an insistent and alarming allegation that China was planning a naval base in Vanuatu,

'... that could see the rising superpower sail warships on Australia’s doorstep.'

However, in typical fashion – that we’ve come to expect from mainstream journalists covering the "security” round – the next two pars walked back the suggestion and sourced it to “senior security officials” in Canberra. In other words, the reporter, David Wroe, had been given a “drop” a background briefing by an Australian spook, because the Government wanted to float the idea and get a reaction.

'While no formal proposals have been put to Vanuatu's government, senior security officials believe Beijing’s plans could culminate in a full military base.'

The tell that this was a planted story is in the lack of detail and the vague sourcing:

'The prospect of a Chinese military outpost so close to Australia has been discussed at the highest levels in Canberra and Washington.'

The Vanuatu Government was quick to issue denials and even labelled the Fairfax reports as “fake news”.

Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu said rumours of discussions with China over a military base were false.

"We are a non-aligned country. We are not interested in militarisation, we are just not interested in any sort of military base in our country," Mr Regenvanu told the ABC.

However, David Wroe’s story still had the effect desired by the Australian “security officials” who briefed him. Within hours, PM Turnbull was able to front the media to express Australia’s concern at the – still unproven – rumours.

"We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific Island countries and neighbours of ours," Turnbull bloviated.

This is an interesting position and an even more puzzling definition of “foreign”. The United States operates more than 20 military bases across the Pacific – from Hawaii to Japan and many ports in between – so why isn’t this alarming to our Prime Minister?

And this is what is really ironic and cynical about Turnbull’s concern: there is – as yet – no Chinese military base in Vanuatu, yet the United States operates permanent military bases throughout the Pacific, including in Australia, Japan (21 bases), Guam and South Korea.

List of U.S. military bases in South Pacific

Here’s a list and this is only the ones we know about.

Australia

  • Pine Gap Joint Defence Space Research Facility, Alice Springs, used by United States armed forces, and CIA, in partnership with the Australian Defence Force and the Australian intelligence services.
  • The US Air Force also makes use of military airports in the Northern Territory to fly nuclear-armed bombers and the US army rotates troops through the Northern Territory on regular training and deployment programs.

Guam

Japan

South Korea

The Philippines

It’s abundantly clear, the global superpower with the ability to wreak havoc and destruction in our region is not China, it is the United States. However, this is not a problem, apparently, because any such mayhem caused by the unleashing of U.S. firepower would be in Australia’s interests.

Interestingly, the alarmism present in the first few pars of David Wroe’s piece completely disappears by the end. It’s worth noting that no one from the “security” “community” would go on the record with Wroe, but academics whom he interviewed – to give the piece fake “balance – were more sanguine about the implications of the rumour.

Wroe’s academic source was Dr Charles Edel, a previous adviser to former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry.

“[The] Chinese presence in Vanuatu, while today about fishing access and commercial trade, tomorrow could represent a threat to Australia’s northern approaches," was as alarmist as Dr Edel was prepared to be.

Dr Edel said that a Chinese presence in the Pacific would make the seas “more crowded” for the Royal Australian Navy, but he added that this would not prevent Australian or U.S. naval vessels from operating freely in the region.

In other words, it would not alter the current balance of power in any significant way. So what’s going on?

Well, it is perhaps not coincidental that Foreign Minister Jewellery Bishop was visiting Vanuatu with our soon-to-be sovereign Prince Charles last weekend and David Wroe dutifully transcribed what he was told during his exclusive background briefing:

'Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Vanuatu with Prince Charles on Saturday in a diplomatic tour that Fairfax Media has been told was aimed at demonstrating the merits of the Commonwealth’s commitment to a free and open system of international rules.'

Now it becomes a bit clearer. Bishop needed to give the ni-Vanuatu a public punch in the face to keep them in line – this has long been Australia’s preferred method of operating in its own neo-colonial sphere of influence.

So, after her cheery “diplomatic” visit, she had someone in her office prepare a briefing for David Wroe and, reliable stenographer that he is, bada-bing, bada-boom a front page Fairfax exclusive appears on Monday.

The real story is, as usual, elsewhere. This time it is buried in the detail of Australia’s aid commitment to poor Pacific island nations.

In the last decade, there has been a deliberate wrecking of DFAT’s ability to fund and administer Australia’s foreign aid programs.

This is how the last ten years have been characterised by the Lowy Institute’s Annmaree O’Keeffe:

[DFAT] suffered from the unsettling administrative upheaval that came with unfulfilled promises of massive budget expansion under the Rudd government; it lost its own administrative base with the demise of AusAID under the Abbott government; it lost a critical mass of internal skills and knowledge with the absorption of the program into the DFAT; and it has had its budget massively eroded.

But most importantly, it has lost the intellectual clarity of its contribution to Australia's broader foreign policy and national interests. The transparency of its activities and achievements is now buried under broad statements of intent and a portfolio budget document that requires a solid understanding of accountancy to interpret.

According to O’Keeffe, the Coalition’s policy, outlined in a November 2017 White Paper, is to continue the underfunding and obfuscation.

She writes that there appears to be:

... a determination from the government to keep the aid program in the shadows. 

The White Paper's overall treatment of aid and development suggests that even in this region where Australia remains the leading donor, the prevailing preference is to diminish and stifle Australia's international development story. Why is this so?

Well, the simple answer, but one not supplied by the Lowy Institute, is that the L-NP Coalition is still living in its neoliberal bubble of trickle down economics, and the ideological belief in “hard work” being the key to success and that “welfare” aspects of foreign aid need to be reduced.

Australian funding for overseas aid has been steadily falling alongside the gutting of the DFAT capability to strategically manage it. We are ranked 20th out of 29 wealthy OECD member nations when it comes to international giving. The government allocates 23 cents for every $100 of GDP (0.23 per cent) and ignored its own election pledge in 2016 to lift it to 50 cents (0.5 per cent of GDP). Even that rise would not have brought Australia close to the OECD leaders who give around 70 cents per $100 (0.7 per cent of GDP).

Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder that the Vanuatu Foreign Minister and his Government colleagues are looking to China and elsewhere for badly needed assistance. If the Chinese want to build a wharf to take cruise ships and a new international airport for tourists, why would the Vanuatu people or Government refuse?

Finally, there’s the absolute hypocrisy surrounding Australian complaints about China getting its hands on sea ports around the Pacific. In 2015, the then Northern Territory Government of Liberal Adam Giles sold the lease for the port of Darwin to China’s 26th richest oligarch, Ye Cheng. Of course, the spooks in their Russell Hill bunkers went spare.

Darwin is a key port for U.S. naval operations and the staging post for all joint U.S.-Australian military “games” in the NT. Now it was open to the Chinese government to permanently house a few of its own spooks in Darwin under the cover of managing port operations.

The Guardian picked up the inconsistencies hidden in the port deal:

Defence experts came out of the woodwork to question whether the deal would have serious security implications; some even suggested it could act as a front for Chinese “espionage or sabotage” of US Navy vessels in the port.

Darwin is 2000 kilometres closer to Australia than Vanuatu. How about that!

You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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