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Leadership requires courage in the Pacific

By Peter Jennings

Australia’s greatest current policy failing in the Pacific is a crushing lack of imagination and a deep-seated fear of taking any action that a Sir Humphrey could describe to his Minister as ‘courageous.’

Take that Chinese-built 360 metre wharf at Luganville in Vanuatu, forever to lie mostly idle. Built at a cost of $114 million provided by soft-loans from Beijing, the wharf should this very minute be hosting a visit from one of the Navy’s massive Canberra-class helicopter carriers. We should be striking a deal with the Vanuatuan government to permanently locate one of our larger patrol boats at Port Vila to team with the smaller vessel we will give Vanuatu in the next few years.

We, not the Chinese, should be using our aid money to build Government House in Vanuatu – one where the lights really will turn on. Every Vanuatuan Prime Minister and every serious aspirant for the job should be red-carpeted through Canberra’s halls of power, making sure that when Port Vila thinks about security they pick up the phone to Australia not Beijing or ne’er-do-wells in Moscow.

None of that is happening. Instead on 7 April we staged a lightning visit from that noted Australian strategist, Prince Charles, along with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Perhaps she gave a box of Foreign Policy White Papers to Vanuatu’s President, His Excellency Obed Moses Tallis, the better to explain Australia’s deep affection for the international rule of law and the shared democratic values that forever bind our two peoples.

Malcolm Turnbull said this week that ‘We put a great effort into the Pacific islands region’, and that the islands ‘are looking to us’ for investment in economic infrastructure. But the strength of Australian leadership in the Pacific is vastly overstated. In fact, Vanuatu’s total investment in Australia at $126 million is larger than Australian total investment in Vanuatu – $116 million in 2016. It’s true we are Vanuatu’s biggest trading partner: our largest export to them is alcoholic beverages ($4.3 million in 2017), our fourth largest export is tobacco ($2.9 million).

The reality is that Australia’s strategic leadership in the Pacific is on autopilot.

We and the New Zealanders will always be the partner of choice when it comes to recovering from disasters – we spent $35 million helping Vanuatu to recover from tropical cyclone Pam in 2015. But none of this can compete with a cashed-up China, which spends money to promote its own long term strategic goals and buys local political backing with breathtakingly cynical corruption.

Notwithstanding the denials from Port Vila and Beijing, it is certain that the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) was exploring the possibility for establishing a military base in Vanuatu. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: the Chinese are working to a long-term but very visible strategy of extending the reach of their military forces. This is the armed counterpart to the so-called ‘belt and road’ strategy in which Beijing encourages approved Chinese companies to buy and build port, road and rail infrastructure through Central Asia, the Pacific and Indian Oceans—financed by soft loans that can be hard to repay.

The PLA-N base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, is a model of what might have emerged in Vanuatu and it will be copied elsewhere. The base was opened in 2016 and is designed to support Chinese naval activity in the Gulf and Indian Ocean. The PLA-N cut its teeth in long distance force projection by engaging in multinational counter-piracy operations around the Horn of Africa in the early 2000s, but there is little doubt the strategic purpose of the base is to protect Chinese trade routes and support Beijing’s requirements to evacuate so-called ‘Overseas Chinese’ from trouble spots, as happened in Libya in 2014.

A Chinese naval base in Vanuatu would, in the short term, be able to perform similar functions. Beijing evacuated Overseas Chinese from the Solomon Islands in 2006 when rioting in Honiara destroyed much of the city’s Chinatown.

But there’s much more to the PLA-N’s strategic thinking than prepositioning some ships and equipment to deal with local trouble spots. The core long-terms objective are: to weaken America’s capacity to move naval forces closer to the Chinese mainland and access the deep-water Pacific with its nuclear-armed ballistic missile carrying submarines; and to weaken the US alliance structure.   Giving US partners problems to focus on close to home distracts and weakens the overall alliance structure.

None of this is particularly secret. In fact, there is a huge volume of writing in Chinese military journals setting out in very precise terms how the PLA-N wants to operate in the Pacific in coming decades.

An essential first step now mostly completed, was to gain control of the air and sea space in the South China Sea, turning that region into a no-go area for American aircraft carrier battle groups. Hainan island at the north of the South China Sea houses China’s major ballistic missile submarine base, so an essential PLA role in any conflict against the United States is to keep the US Navy as far from that location as possible.

According to a recent article in the leading English language journal, The China Quarterly, researchers from the PLA-N Qingdao Submarine Academy assert that the Chinese submarine force intends to increasingly operate in the ‘far seas’, that submarines ‘will form the assassin’s mace force of our Navy’s expansion into the deep oceans for defence combat’ and point to the South Pacific as the optimal patrol area for Chinese nuclear submarines.

This is not to suggest that Chinese submarines would be visiting Port Vila any time soon. That’s the twenty-year objective. In the interim, the PLA-N aim is to get the region used to the constant presence of visiting Chinese warships and to expand their logistic support capabilities as widely as possible.

I can guarantee that those initial ships visit to Vanuatu would be benign – imagine white hulled hospital ships visiting to fit Ni-Vanuatu children with orthodontic braces.

Australia’s challenge is to think in the decade-long time scales Chinese strategic planners routinely do. What could a PLA-N planner do to complicate Australian and American military activities in the Coral Sea? One idea might be to preposition sea mines at the naval base, which can be placed into harm’s way by specially adapted fishing boats.

Or imagine the panic in Canberra if China decided to locate an Over the Horizon backscatter radar in Vanuatu looking west. That system can identify targets between 1,000 and 4,000 kilometres away, effectively covering all Australia’s east cost military bases. A preposterous suggestion? Hardly, China has deployed three such radars in its own territory since 2005 including one looking over the South China Sea.

Just as in World War Two, Vanuatu, indeed all the Melanesian islands, are vital strategic geography for Australia.

A Chinese base there would massively complicate Australian and US military activities on our east coast.  That’s why China wants to put a one there.

More strategic leadership is needed from Australia in the Pacific. Even at the painful price of spending money and doing things with our military forces, we need to offer the Pacific Island States genuine leadership through the closest possible cooperation on national security – theirs as well as ours. ‘Courageous indeed, Minister!’

Originally published by: The Weekend Australian on 14 Apr 2018