China has approached Vanuatu about establishing a permanent military presence on the tiny Pacific island, Australia's Fairfax Media reported on Tuesday, a plan that would likely stoke regional tensions.
The report, citing unnamed sources, said no formal proposal had yet been made, but preliminary talks have been held about locating a full military base on Vanuatu. It added that the prospect of a Chinese military outpost so close to Australia has been discussed at the highest levels in Canberra and Washington.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Tuesday said she had been assured by Vanuatu officials that there was no formal proposal from Beijing, but she stopped short of addressing whether there had been any unofficial talks.
"The government of Vanuatu has said there is no such proposal, but it is a fact that China is engaging in infrastructure investment activities around the world," Bishop told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.
"I remain confident that Australia is Vanuatu's strategic partner of choice," she said.
A spokesman for Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment, telephone calls to the Vanuatu High Commission in Canberra were not answered, and the Chinese Embassy in Canberra did not comment.
The Fairfax Media report said the preliminary discussions involved an initial access agreement, under which Chinese naval ships would dock to be serviced, refueled and restocked, and that would eventually lead to a full military base.
Such a plan would mark an expansion of China's military aspirations beyond its controversial activities in Asia, particularly the South China Sea, where it has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and airstrips.
Several international nations have accused China in recent months of seeking to buy influence in the South Pacific through international aid, stoking fears that Australia's long-time influence in the region is being eroded.
China opened its first overseas military base in August 2017 in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. It is China's first overseas naval base, but Beijing describes it as a logistics facility.
Djibouti's position on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean has fuelled worry in India that it would become another of China's "string of pearls" military alliances and assets ringing India, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
China has boosted its naval power in recent years to check U.S. dominance of the high seas and increase its projection of power around the globe.