Australia and Vanuatu to negotiate security treaty

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia said Monday that it would negotiate a security treaty with Vanuatu, weeks after the Australian prime minister warned China against building a military base in the South Pacific island nation.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the negotiations during a visit to the Australian Parliament House by Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas.

"We agreed to commence negotiations on a bilateral security treaty on common security interests, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster response, maritime surveillance and border security, police and defense cooperation," Turnbull said in a statement.

Turnbull said he and Salwai had reinforced their commitment to a deep and enduring economic and security partnership.

A Vanuatu government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

In May, China and Vanuatu denied media reports that the Chinese had approached the former joint British-French colony, which has a population of 280,000, about building a permanent military presence in the South Pacific.

Turnbull said at the time that Australia "would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbors of ours."

New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern had said her country takes "a strong position in the Pacific against militarization."

Vanuatu's infrastructure minister, Jotham Napat, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. last week that Salwai would use his Australian visit to ask Turnbull for Australia to help pay for a high-speed telecommunications cable from Sydney to Vanuatu.

The request follows the Australian government's announcement last week that it would pay most of the 137 million Australian dollar ($101 million) price tag for such an undersea cable to South Pacific neighbors Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

Australia stepped into that project after the Solomons' government signed a contract with Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in 2017 to build a cable to the Sydney broadband hub. The Solomons consequently scrapped the Huawei deal.

Huawei has been flagged by U.S. intelligence officials as a national security threat because of its links to the Chinese Communist Party. Australia has barred Huawei on security grounds from bidding for contracts in a national broadband network that is currently being rolled out Australia-wide.

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