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By Alison Bevege and Tom Westbrook

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The United States has conducted a survey of a Chinese-funded wharf in Vanuatu ahead of a military exercise by U.S. forces planned for the South Pacific later this year, the U.S. Marine Corps said on Saturday.

The wharf had been the subject of reports in Australia's Fairfax Media that China wanted to establish a permanent military base in the Pacific island nation.

Both Vanuatu and China denied the report amid heightened tension with the United States over China's activity in the South China Sea.

U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Curtis L. Hill told Reuters by email that a small contingent of Marines from 1 Marine Expeditionary Force based in California had conducted a site survey in preparation for the exercise that U.S. forces will hold.

"The site survey was conducted due to the likely participation of a Military Sealift Command support vessel in the exercise," he said.

Vanuatu, about 2,000 km (1,200 miles) east of northern Australia, was home to a key U.S. Navy base during World War Two that helped beat back the Japanese army as it advanced through the Pacific toward Australia.

There is heightened interest in the wharf in Luganville town because it could be big enough to allow warships to dock at it. Its primary use is to cater for cargo vessels and ferries.

(Reporting by Alison Bevege and Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY.; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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Reuters