High-ranking representatives of the Australian Armed Forces assume that China intends to strengthen its military presence in the South Pacific via the island nation of Vanuatu.
China "has certainly expressed its interest" in increasing its military presence on Vanuatu, an archipelago of 80 islands 1,750 kilometers east of the Australian coast, a senior 9News defense official said. It is not known how far these talks are going or how big the presence of China is.
Fairfax Media reported a few weeks ago that there had been discussions about converting a China-funded quay in Vanuatu into a potential Chinese naval base. But senior officials from Vanuatu, China and Australia have publicly denied the reports.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull even received an assurance from Vanuat's Prime Minister, Charlot Salwai, that he would not allow the quay to become a military base.
"The most troubling implication for Australian interests is that a future naval base in Vanuatu China would gain a foothold in operations to force Australia to outflank the US and its bases on US territory in Guam and in a regional intelligence service to collect security crises, "wrote Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, in a report from the Lowy Institute.
China has invested heavily in Pacific Islands. From 2006 to 2016, Beijing financed 218 projects with $ 1.7 billion in grants and preferential loans.
Australia has closely monitored the advances, with the countries defaulting on these loans being forced to sell their resources to the Chinese government or state-owned enterprises.
"Maintaining peace and stability in the Pacific is of paramount importance to us," Turnbull said recently. "We would be very worried about the establishment of foreign military bases in these Pacific island states and neighbors."
The links between China and Australia remain tense.
Last year, Turnbull proposed a legislative initiative to define and expand the definition of foreign interference after a wave of claims about China's influence on political campaigns in Australia had taken place. The laws have been mocked in China and since then the two countries have been struggling over strained diplomatic relations.
There were reports a few days ago that the Chinese Navy "challenged" Australian warships in the South China Sea earlier this month.