About 65 U.S. troops will provide humanitarian assistance to Vanuatu during Operation Pacific Angel, which runs July 16 to 21, Pacific Air Forces announced Thursday.
In April Vanuatu’s government denied reports that it was talking to Beijing about building a Chinese military base.
The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper had reported that the governments held preliminary talks and that the issue had been discussed at the highest levels in Canberra and Washington, claims disputed by Australian, Chinese and Vanuatuan officials.
The denials haven’t quelled concerns over the communist nation’s efforts to grow its influence in the South Pacific. Vanuatu is among a number of Pacific nations receiving Chinese aid and investment and a member of a select few that support China’s claims in the South China Sea.
People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels have made recent port calls in New Zealand and Fiji, and some believe China wants to establish a permanent presence in a region where, according to Australia’s Lowy Institute, it has provided more than $2.3 billion in aid since 2006.
China has only one overseas military base — in Djibouti — but has gained leverage through loans for infrastructure projects in a number of other places where it might want to establish its forces.
It’s been suggested that a Chinese base in the South Pacific could outflank U.S. forces on Guam and slow efforts to bring in reinforcements to fight off an invasion of Taiwan.
However, last month Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called Vanuatu one of his nation’s “key partners” and said a security pact was in the works.
The humanitarian operation will involve American troops working with Vanuatu’s military, partner nations, and non-governmental organizations, PACAF said in a statement.
U.S. personnel will provide health and engineering assistance on both Espiritu Santo and Tanna islands, the statement said.
Aid is also intended to bolster the disaster relief capabilities of the local government, an important mission in a country that researchers have rated the most at risk of being hit by a natural disaster.
The work in Vanuatu will be the second of four humanitarian assistance missions during this year’s Pacific Angel operation. The first phase provided assistance in Timor-Leste. Later phases are scheduled in Sri Lanka and Vietnam, according to PACAF.
Now entering its eleventh year, Pacific Angel aims to ensure nations in the Pacific can work together to address humanitarian crises, PACAF said.