China and Vanuatu have been sharing diplomatic relations since 1982 and have made relentless efforts to step up cooperation for mutual benefit. China values the One-China policy of Vanuatu and this forms the basic fundamental of the relations between the two. This holds great significance especially as many countries in Oceania have changing attitudes towards the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Taiwan with 8 states supporting PRC and 6 ROC. The latter numbers are never constant. China has expressed its willingness to have greater economic ties with the nations under Pacific Islands Forum by increasing economic aid, waiving off tariffs in addition to cancelling the debt.
China is a highly significant development partner for Vanuatu and accounts for $220 million foreign debts of the island nation. Vanuatu has also made it to the officially approved list of tourism destinations.
China considers Vanuatu as a strategic player in the Pacific and is keen on developing a Southern Pacific Base of its Navy. There have been reports in media about negotiations between the two and China is pursuing a permanent military base in the country. A new dock is coming up in Espiritu Santo completely with Chinese help which is seen by other nations as a potential place to China to host its naval vessels in the region.
Although both the sides have refuted any such talks or agreements being underway yet a permanent Chinese naval base in the Southern Pacific seems likely. Vanuatu carries huge strategic significance for China as it is looking forward to moving past the first island chain formed by nations which are allies of US running from Japan to Taiwan and Philippines. This will help increase the stature of People’s Liberation Army-Navy PLAN in the Pacific as a significant carrier force. China has only one operational carrier as of now-the Liaoning while 5 others are under construction. Thus, China will ultimately have 6 carriers of which 3 could be used nuclear purposes. In addition, a base at Vanuatu will serve critical operations like logistics, refilling and also maintenance point for China. Thus, Vanuatu will play a major role in supporting the all-new Expeditionary avatar of the Chinese navy.
China has been aggressively working on its cheque-book diplomacy with Vanuatu by showering on it millions of dollars for development and construction of government buildings of significance. However, Vanuatu is not Djibouti where China made its first overseas deployment as a follow-up of its national military strategy. Vanuatu has maintained constant and healthy diplomatic relations with Australia, Western Europe in addition to Australia and New Zealand.
The whole story will now rest on Vanuatu’s decision to host China in a military light will carry huge costs for Vanuatu. Even if China is ready to bear the costs involved, the decision will be difficult.