After Solomons, Vanuatu is PLA’s next Pacific island base

The carefully curated list of ten island countries visited by Wang Yi was chosen for having kinetic strike access to actual or potential military bases, especially of the Quad, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat

As has since the 1950s been the case in Pakistan, in the Xi era, the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) goes by the agenda set by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Ever since Xi Jinping took over as CCP General Secretary in 2012, the PLA has been placed in the forefront of policy, the reverse of what took place during the era of Deng Xiaoping, when PLA influence over other fields of government was curtailed. Advanced planning for a kinetic conflict on land, sea, space, cyberspace and air with the United States and its allies has been the primary preoccupation of the PLA since 2015.

Strategies have been worked out within the Central Military Commission (CMC) to inflict a “politically unacceptable” cost to US forces. In Vietnam, although the US military could have continued the war against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong for longer, Ho Chi Minh succeeded in making the political cost to the White House of such a continuation unbearable. Ironically, Henry A. Kissinger, who persuaded President Richard M. Nixon to prolong the war for three more bloody years rather than speedily deliver on Nixon’s electoral promise of peace, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Presumably, this was for his success in population control in Southeast Asia. Given the slowdown in the PRC economy and the effect this is having especially on middle income living standards across China, CCP Supremo Xi needs a victory on the battlefield against India or Taiwan to prevent the unease within party cadres at the quality of his leadership. To ensure this, the PLA is planning to build a system of “defensive offense” across the locations where such a contest may most likely take place: the Himalayan ranges, the South China Sea and the Pacific segment of the Indo-Pacific.

Securing bases in the Pacific island countries is an essential part of Xi’s plans. PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s 10-nation trip through the Pacific islands was to ensure that besides the Solomon Islands, other Pacific island countries could be persuaded to sign agreements that would permit PLA berthing, landing, storage and maintenance facilities that would be helpful in the advent of a conflict with the US and its allies.

A comprehensive list of presently disused World War II airports and present and potential naval berthing facilities in the island countries has been drawn up by the CMC for Wang Yi to take up. These are locations that the CMC believes would be desirable for the PLA (including the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force) to secure sole access on a permanent basis. They have been listed in the notes given by the Office of the General Secretary on the advice of the Central Military Commission (CMC) to Wang Yi.

The carefully curated list of ten island countries visited by the PRC Foreign Minister were chosen by the CMC on the grounds of (a) having at decision-making levels a sufficient number of individuals who are beholden to the PRC, (b) having kinetic strike access to actual or potential military bases, especially of the Quad, and (c) already having a significant number of resident or long transit PRC citizens located there. Prime Minister Sogavare of the Solomon Islands is as reliable a “dear friend” of the PRC as are former Prime Minister Oli of Nepal, Former President Yameen of the Maldives and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka. The problem for Sogavare and his patrons in Beijing is that the country’s largest province, Malaita, is under the control of the elected Prime Minister, Daniel Suidani. He is opposed to the Solomon Islands becoming a vassal state of the PRC. Premier Suidani has been campaigning against such a sellout by the ruling group of politicians in Honiara, the national capital.

Unfortunately for him, the tentacles of the Sino-Wahabi lobby in Australia and New Zealand have ensured that Suidani has not been given any backing by either Auckland or Canberra in his campaign against the Sogavare doctrine, which is that what is good for the PRC is good for the Solomon Islands. Even Quad partner India appears to be looked upon with caution in Canberra, so much so that influential persons in the Pacific island nations needing to make a transit stop in Australia, en route to destinations in India, get subjected to unexplained visa delays and queries by Australian authorities.

Given the power and resources of the Sino-Wahabi lobby, such a situation is likely to continue until a direct flight gets launched between India and Fiji, a country that does not require a visa for citizens of the Pacific island countries. There are India-friendly individuals in many of these island nations who are willing to serve as Honorary Consuls of India, and some have sent requests for such appointments to South Block, but as yet, with no success.

This may change, however. Close relations between India and the Pacific island countries is reported to be a priority of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, and it is therefore expected that proposals for the appointment of at least a few Honorary Consuls in key Pacific island countries such as the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Tonga will finally be actioned in a context where there has been excessive reliance on Australia where relations with this group of countries in the Indo-Pacific are concerned.

In actuality, Canberra and Auckland have made themselves unpopular within the group, as their diplomats are considered overbearing and patronizing, a fault that Beijing has sought to take advantage of. India’s advantage is that in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country has a Head of Government who is respectful of all countries, and who demonstrates in his attitude and diplomacy a stance of complete equality, no matter what the disparity in size and population of the country concerned and India may be.

Although as yet the Pacific islands as a group have declined to be drawn into the PLA embrace, Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been successful during his visit in the signing of a protocol between Vanuatu and the PRC. The document provides for assistance, such as an exhaustive survey of the seabed around the island country (and nearby) areas by the PRC Directorate of Hydrology. Such mapping would be helpful for future naval operations, as also in accessing the seabed resources of the zone that is to be comprehensively surveyed. Wang Yi has secured Vanuatu’s agreement for twice weekly flights from the Chinese mainland to and from Vanuatu.

Such flights “would be increased once traffic on the route grows” as a consequence of PLA personnel and members of the security agencies, besides PRC citizens looking to establish deep roots in the islands, making regular visits to the newly established PRC facilities in Vanuatu. A naval vessel is to be gifted to the island country, in exchange for which coast guard officers of Vanuatu will be “comprehensively trained” by PLAN officers. In three of the islands that are part of Vanuatu, “humanitarian aid” warehouses and storage complexes are to be set up. Any checking of what “humanitarian assistance” is arriving from the PRC to these facilities would of course be done by Chinese authorities.

Such assistance may be of the same type as the humanitarian assistance being sent to Ukraine by the US and its EU partners in NATO, much of which is produced by armaments manufacturers. Under the protocol, the PRC has contracted to set up an intrusion-proof communication system for the “internal security of the friendly nation of Vanuatu”. Such a network would give Chinese agencies access to messaging via communications systems across a wide swathe of territory, possibly including countries other than the Pacific island countries. In order to ensure speedy deployment of PRC police and military forces wherever needed in the nation, a network of roads is being set up. This is entered in the protocol as part of the PRC effort at “promoting development in friendly Vanuatu”.

Neither Canberra nor Auckland, much less Washington, seems to be willing to react in the manner necessary to prevent the building of such stepping stones towards a robust PLA kinetic and non-kinetic capacity in the Pacific islands. These would be in preparation for possible US and allied intervention in the event of an attempted takeover by the PRC of Taiwan, or moves by the military and asymmetric forces acting under the direction of the CMC guided by Xi Jinping Thought to create a chokehold for traffic within the South China and East China Seas. Whether President Biden will get over his obsession with punishing Putin in time for him and his partners in the region to ensure that such outcomes be prevented remains an open question. What is certain is that the consequences of President Joe Biden’s Putin obsession will be much greater than the fallout caused by a similar emotion in President George W. Bush towards Saddam Hussein. Interesting times beckon.

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