Last week, we heard about a report from Australia’s Fairfax Media that preliminary talks were underway between China and Vanuatu for a military base in the Pacific Island nation. Vanuatu’s ambassador denied it, then the Foreign Minister denied it, and yesterday, Vanuatu’s Prime Minister denied it. We have more from Neal Conan in today’s Pacific News Minute.
Vanuatu’s Charlot Salwai met with Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull while both were in London for a Commonwealth Heads of Government event.
“I want to assure the Prime Minister that Vanuatu was never dreaming to become a military base,” Salwai said.
A Chinese company is building a wharf large enough to service warships in Vanuatu’s Espiritu Santo, but the prime minister explained that the Chinese loan was cheaper than one offered by Japan. According to the Fairfax Media report, Australia worries that China will leverage that and other loans into incremental concessions - what’s known as debt diplomacy. The Chinese Navy might receive permission to dock, refuel and resupply at first, leading eventually to a full military base.
“I rule it out,” Salwai declared, “I rule it out.”
Back home, Prime Minister Salwai’s government faces a new crisis on the island of Ambae. Six months ago, an eruption of the Manaro volcano forced all 11,000 residents to evacuate. They returned home when Manaro calmed down, but eruptions resumed a month ago, and now the volcano has dumped as much as a foot of ash on parts of the island, ruining food gardens and contaminating water.
Volcanic fumes are blamed for four deaths. Fresh evacuations are underway and this time, it looks as if the government may have to find permanent homes for Ambae’s people, probably on the nearby islands of Pentecost and Maewo.