Well, it’s official - sort of. Vanuatu and China have been discussing building a Chinese naval base in the island republic. Of course, the Vanuatu government has denied it, the Australian government has denied it, so too has China. So, being cynical, I deduce from this torrent of official denials that the proposal does exist. My basic rule of thumb: when governments say “A”, they really mean “B”.
What to do about it? Clearly, Australia and New Zealand will both be extremely unhappy – maybe the US too, if it cares – with the Chinese military ensconced in Vanuatu. Too close to our East Coast and too close to our sea communications with the Americas. One commentator suggested it was causing “panic in Canberra”. The only things Canberra seems to panic about these days are politicians’ sex lives and coal-fired power stations. Wider geopolitical concerns don’t rank very high in Australia. No matter; I digress. What are some of our options? There are several:
Grin and bear it. If we accept that Trumpian America is on the way out in our region, then we also accept that the South-West Pacific may well become a Chinese lake, and we make the best deal we can with China to maintain some semblance of limited independence. At best we become neutral; at worst a client-state of China. There are many influential and powerful Australians who would not be too unhappy with such a result. Naturally, I assume no one is foolish enough to want Australia to take China head-on – unless we vastly expand the ADF, which I doubt Australians are willing to pay for.
Bribery. Vanuatu supposedly owes China hundreds of millions of dollars in loans. We offer the government in Port Vila a lot of money to pay back some or all of that money; in return, Port Vila sends the Chinese packing. However, Australian governments are so penny-pinching when it comes to foreign aid, this option is doubtful, even if solidly motivated by national defence. This would. though, be the least messy, most defensible, most legal, option.
Invasion. This could be nasty and messy. It smacks of 19th-century British gunboat colonialism. Very unfashionable. It might provoke the Chinese into a counter-reaction; it also might cheese off the Americans who officially don’t like colonialism – unless they are doing it themselves. Remember their refusal to support the UK during the Suez crisis of 1956. It would also inevitably provoke a local, anti-Australian insurrection which would cost a lot of lives and treasure to control. Also, it presupposes the Australian military has the resources to carry out an invasion of Vanuatu. After the Australian military’s experience in East Timor in 1999, when background American support was vital, one can be forgiven for questioning the ADF’s ability to do this, in the absence of great-power (read US) background support.
The “Dogs of War” strategy. This is by far the most attractive option, if one scraps my “bribery” option mentioned above. Readers of Frederick Forsyth’s 1974 novel of the same name will cotton on immediately. You find a faction or group in the target country which is dissatisfied with their existing government. You train it, arm it, and finance it to launch a coup to replace the existing government (which you don’t like) with a new government (which you do like) which has already pre-promised you, in secret, to scrap the naval-base deal with China. If your faction or group lacks the necessary discipline and/or firepower, then slip into the country a company or two of Special Forces/mercenaries, suitably disguised, to help place your new government in Government House (or its Port Vila equivalent). Also, maybe you pre-position, just off Port Vila, a Navy destroyer or two, ostensibly to protect/evacuate Australian citizens who are threatened by this violent coup d’état. Then you speedily recognise the new government. And hope China doesn’t intervene.
There is actually an Australian precedent, of sorts, for this kind of operation. In June 1940, in the early years of World War II, France had been defeated by Germany. A collaborationist Vichy French government now worked with the Germans. A Free French government-in-exile, headed by General De Gaulle, sided with the Allies. Overseas French possessions had to choose which side they were on: Vichy or De Gaulle. In our part of the world, New Caledonia, then as now a French territory, was riven by Vichy and Free French factions. A Vichy government seized power in the island. The Free French in the island threatened insurrection. The Free French government-in-exile appointed a new governor to take over in Noumea, the capital. In September 1940, the Royal Australian Navy sent the cruiser HMAS Adelaide to take the new governor to Noumea and provide him with firepower, just in case Vichy made a fight of it. Under the guns of HMAS Adelaide, the Vichy authorities in Noumea backed down without a fight, the Free French took over, and New Caledonia remained in the Allied camp for the remainder of World War II, providing an invaluable base for Allied forces fighting the Japanese.
Of course, there are some significant differences between the two cases. In 1940, Australia had the backing of the British Empire, Free France, and the useful excuse of World War 2. In 2018, we are not at war with China, or anyone else. Also, would anyone support us, apart (probably) from New Zealand? US support would, of course, be highly welcome. But in this Age of Trump, could it be relied on? For a similar operation against a (hypothetically) Chinese-sympathetic Vanuatu, we might – just might – have to bite the bullet and do it on our own. Would any Australian government, of whatever political stripe, have the balls to do it? Would the ADF have the resources to do it, in the absence of very significant increases in defence spending?
These are the $64 questions. I am not overly confident of a positive answer to any of them.