China pressuring Vanuatu for support in territorial dispute, PM admits

Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai was in New Zealand this week.
DAVID WHITE/FAIRFAX NZ

Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai was in New Zealand this week.

Vanuatu's Prime Minister has admitted it received a direct request from China to support its stance on a set of disputed islands.

But Charlot Salwai has denied the tiny Pacific nation received any financial benefit from the move, despite becoming the first country to publicly declare its support.

The Asian country has constructed runways, radars and deep sea ports on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, claiming them as their own and heightening tensions in the area.

In July, it was revealed China had threatened reprisals should New Zealand investigate claims of steel dumping by the local industry. 

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After initially denying any knowledge of the threats, Trade Minister Todd McClay was publicly reprimanded by John Key for 'covering up' key details.

It comes amid ongoing tensions between China and its neighbours; the Philippines launched a legal challenge to try and block China's claims to the resource-rich sea.

China, which is one of the biggest foreign aid donors in the Pacific, has been targeting the region's countries in a bid to win their backing as it seeks global support for its position.

Salwai issued a statement in June stating Vanuatu fully understood and supported China's position that territorial disputes must based on historic and cultural facts.

In an interview during his visit to New Zealand this week, Salwai reiterated his position.

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"We believe more in traditional and...heritage, that's our position. We're respecting our boundaries as well with New Caledonia and we believe in a cultural and friendly way to sort out these issues."

China had requested Vanuatu support its stance publicly, but this had not resulted in any cash being paid or debt being forgiven.

Vanuatu had several loans with Chinese banks that were being renegotiated, but Salwai denied its support of China would result in more favourable conditions.

"It was purely a diplomatic position we had, as I said we have the same stand on our dispute with New Caledonia.

"The position of Vanuatu was very clear, Vanuatu is more encouraging China and other countries disputing the boundary to undergo the negotiations in a peaceful and friendly way."

When asked if China's build-up of military resources in the area was a peaceful move, Salwai did not answer.

Vanuatu is still recovering from the damage caused by Cyclone Pam, which hammered the country in March last year.

The airport was badly damaged and Air New Zealand later cancelled all flights to the country citing safety issues.

Despite temporary repairs the airline continues to refuse to fly but Salwai said construction of a new airport would begin next year.

This would be built with a loan from the World Bank, not China, he said.

 - Sunday Star Times

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