An official with the United States State Department confirmed the department was aware of the report and was seeking to determine its credibility. The United States has an enduring interest in the security and stability of the Pacific, the official added.
The report comes as many Australians have become increasingly alarmed about Chinese influence in the country, with Australian politics recently thrown into turmoil over allegations that China is trying to buy its politicians and sway its elections.
Experts say officials in Australia, the United States, and New Zealand are closely watching Beijing as it deepens its influence in the South Pacific through infrastructure projects and loans to smaller nations, and any effort to build military bases in the region would be particularly worrisome.
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“If it were to happen, and it’s a huge if, it would be an aggressive move in the eyes of Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand,” said Graeme Smith, a Pacific Affairs expert at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Vanuatu, an impoverished nation, is considered to be within Australia’s sphere of influence, with Canberra providing it with aid and investment. Australian politicians said that a Chinese base on Vanuatu would be a potential game changer strategically for the region.
“It would have not only security but economic consequences for the region, and we should regard it as a wake-up call for Australia,” Senator Penny Wong told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“It is not in the interest of the region — or in the interests of stability — for there to be increased competition, great power competition, in our region,” she said.
Jonathan Pryke, a Pacific islands expert with the Lowy Institute, noted that Vanuatu is home to a wharf built and financed by China that could conceivably be used for military purposes, particularly if Vanuatu has problems repaying the loan.
“They can provide a nice bit of economic leverage over that country,” Mr. Pryke added.
Fairfax Media reported that Beijing had recently committed to building a new residence for Vanuatu’s prime minister, Charlot Salwai, as well as other government buildings. Vanuatu has also reportedly been given hundreds of millions in development money by the Chinese.