AUSTRALIA and Vanuatu are slowly moving towards a bilateral security treaty after a series of meetings between the Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers of both countries.
Welcoming his counterpart Scott Morrison to Port Vila in January, Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas stated: “The Australian Government continues to remain an important partner in police cooperation and security, both at the national and regional level.”
But the nuance is significant. Australia is ‘an’ important partner, not ‘the’ important partner, despite Morrison’s pledge “to reinforce Australia as Vanuatu’s economic, development and security partner of choice.”
Before leaving for Port Vila, Morrison stressed that the firstever bilateral visit by an Australian Prime Minister was part of his government’s renewed focus on the Pacific: “It’s part of our refocusing of our international efforts on our own region, in our own backyard and making sure we can make the biggest possible difference.”
Despite the positive dialogue over bilateral relations, trade, policing and security, it’s clear that the government of Vanuatu retains a strong commitment to its longstanding policy of nonalignment. During his visit to Australia in February, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu stressed that his country would maintain partnerships with both China and Australia, despite Canberra’s concern over growing Chinese influence in the region.
“We are happy to enter into a security agreement with Australia,” Regenvanu said. “We made it clear it won’t be an exclusive agreement, and we can enter into similar security agreements with other partners as we choose. We have these existing relationships and we would not want to cut them off by having to just rely on Australia. We would like all our partners to contribute in some way to our needs in this area.”
In January, US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued the U.S. intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment. The annual intelligence analysis stated: “China is currying favour with numerous Pacific Island nations through bribery, infrastructure investment and diplomatic engagement.”
Much as Canberra denies that a policy of strategic denial is driving its renewed engagement with Forum Island Countries, Morrison’s recent visit to Vanuatu and Fiji was driven by concern over China’s growing partnership with island neighbours. Canberra and Wellington are eager to show the Trump administration that they are active in a region Morrison has described, in typically patronising Australian language, as “our patch” and “our backyard.”
Relations with Vanuatu have much improved since last year, when Australia’s then-Minister for International Development Concetta Fierravanti-Wells condemned Chinese aid projects in Vanuatu and the Sydney Morning Herald published a series of articles about a purported Chinese military base in Luganville (claims quickly denied by Prime Minister Salwai and Foreign Minister Regenvanu).
The furore raised hackles on both sides, leading to a series of visits to reset the relationship. In June 2018, Prime Minister Salwai made an official visit to Canberra and then met informally with Morrison on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Port Moresby in November. Morrison’s unprecedented bilateral visit in January allowed Canberra to discuss a range of proposals, from a bilateral security treaty to increased labour mobility, trade and telecommunications links.
Morrison was accompanied by Senator Anne Ruston, Assistant Minister for International Development and the Pacific as well as Nick Warner, director-general of the newly created Office of
National Intelligence (ONI). A seasonal diplomat and intelligence co-ordinator, Warner has previously served as the first RAMSI special coordinator, Australian Ambassador for Counterterrorism and head of Australia’s overseas spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Service (ASIS).
Just days after the Prime Ministerial visit, another delegation of senior security and intelligence officials travelled to Port Vila, before moving on to Tonga, Fiji and Solomon Islands. The delegation was led by the Chief of the Australian Defence Force General Angus Campbell, accompanied by Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin, Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram and Peter Vickery, Deputy Director-General of the domestic intelligence agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
During his visit, Prime Minister Morrison opened the refurbished Vanuatu Police College. Australia has also made commitments to fund new infrastructure for the Vanuatu Mobile Force and Police Maritime Wing, build a new police station on Malekula and provide increased training in Australia for Vanuatu police.
General Campbell also committed to taking Australian security engagement with the region to a new level, noting: “Defence plays a key role in this endeavour – we are and will continue to enhance our security cooperation with our Pacific neighbours, building on our existing and long-standing engagement, including under the Defence Cooperation Program.”
As part of the regional Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP), Vanuatu will receive a new Guardian-class patrol boat to replace an older vessel supplied under the Howard-era Pacific Patrol Boat Program.
On 7 February, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne then made a flying visit to Port Vila to meet Vanuatu Foreign Minister Regenvanu, just days before he travelled to Australia on an official visit.
Competing visions of security
Before leaving for Australia, Regenvanu spoke to Islands Business at his office in Port Vila, welcoming the increased engagement by Canberra.
“We’re delighted by the Prime Minister choosing to come to Vanuatu,” he said. “In fact it’s the first bilateral visit ever. I think the value of the visit was the inter-personal connections, much more than anything substantial.”
Regenvanu noted that the flurry of visits has furthered discussions on the bilateral and regional security agenda, even if the two sides are not in complete agreement about the content of a possible security treaty: “There’s a great deal more clarity now, especially on the Australian side, about our willingness to work with them on what we perceive to be security issues for Vanuatu. These include police and policing, intelligence gathering and maritime boundaries and – one of the main ones – responding to natural disasters.
“Subsequent to the visit, the Vanuatu Cabinet approved the establishment of a National Security Council for Vanuatu, the first time we will have one. That’s going to be established now to develop a National Security Strategy and Australia is particularly interested in resourcing the development of that strategy.” Reflecting the regional view that climate change is the greatest single threat to security, the new National Security Council includes the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, alongside chiefs and civil society representatives as ad hoc members.
As reported by Islands Business last May, Vanuatu will not give ground on its long-standing policies of nonalignment, demilitarisation and nuclear free status.
The leaking of intelligence on a Chinese military base in Vanuatu in April 2018 came as PNG Foreign Minister RimbinkPato was in Beijing, preparing for Chinese President Xi Jinping’sNovember visit to Papua New Guinea. The same month, RalphRegenvanu was at a Ministerial Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Baku, Azerbaijan.
In 1983, Vanuatu was the first Pacific island country to join the NAM, followed by Fiji in 2011. At the 2018 Baku summit, the Vanuatu Foreign Minister stressed that his country is committed “to be non-aligned from major global powers, to free people from colonial oppression, to ensure international peace and stability, to champion human rights, and to ensure an inclusive and reformed multilateral order.”
Speaking at a public forum at USP Emalus on 8 February, Regenvanu reiterated: “In spite of competing interests, Vanuatu continues to uphold a non-aligned foreign policy which is most explicitly manifested in our principles and practice of denuclearisation and non-militarisation of the Pacific Ocean.”
Trade and climate
While welcoming Australian support for policing, intelligence sharing and maritime surveillance, the Vanuatu government stresses the relationship is part of a broader development partnership. For Prime Minister Salwai, “the Vanuatu Government continues to place a specific emphasis on increased trade with Australia, particularly, incremental increases to its export base and other initiatives….The Vanuatu Government also continues to value its participation in labour mobility initiatives such as the Seasonal Workers Program and the Pacific Labour Scheme.”
Successive Vanuatu governments have complained that Australia has restricted export opportunities through non-tariff trade barriers such as quarantine and phytosanitary controls. One long-standing grievance has been the ban on the importation of commercial quantities of kava to Australia, restricting a potential export earner for countries like Vanuatu and Fiji.
During his visit, Morrison made commitments to “progress” a pilot program to ease some of the limits on kava importation. However Foreign Minister Regenvanu told Islands Business there is still a way to go before the trade can expand.
“The kava announcement was very welcome, but we have to see how that goes,” Regenvanu said. “One of the main focusses of the Vanuatu government is to get something out of that announcement. We are working with our Australian counterparts to see how we can get something that’s real and tangible and makes a difference, especially for Pacific populations in Australia who are the main consumers of kava.”
Throughout his January tour, Morrison stressed his government was committed to stronger climate action. No one really believed him, given the Australian government’s reluctance to commit to faster reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and refusal to provide extra funds to the Green Climate Fund (GCF).
This refusal is in part driven by the belief that Australia should hold the purse strings, rather than operate through multilateral funds where developing countries have a say in the allocation of resources. In Port Vila, Morrison stressed that “the investments that we’re making to combat climate change particularly in the Pacific, is going to be done directly; not through third parties, not through global climate funds.”
With a possible change of government in Canberra by May and Vanuatu going to the polls in early 2020, finalisation of a new security treaty has a way to go. But whoever wins office, you can’t have a Pacific policy if you don’t have a China policy. Beijing will continue as a major player in the region and all Forum members will continue to grapple with this reality.
BOTH government and opposition parties in Australia have outlined a renewed commitment to the Pacific, as voters prepare to go to the polls.
In recent months, the Coalition government led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced more than $3 billion worth of infrastructure and security initiatives in the Pacific. However it’s unlikely that Morrison will get to spend this money. National elections must be held by May, and opinion polls suggest that the opposition Australian Labour Party (ALP) led by Bill Shorten will win a crushing victory.
Despite positive economic data, many workers have seen little wage growth during the period of Coalition government between 2013 and 2018. Relations between the governing Liberal and National parties are tense, as the government stumbles from scandal to scandal. Above all, there are unresolved tensions within the Liberal Party after the dumping of three prime ministers since 2013. Internal faction fighting saw Prime Minister Tony Abbott replaced by Malcolm Turnbull in 2015, who was then replaced in August 2018 by Scott Morrison, after a failed putsch by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton (with six changes of Prime Minister since 2007, Voreqe Bainimarama is pleased that Canberra has replaced Suva as the coup capital of Oceania).
In states like Queensland, small but significant numbers of voters have turned away from the major parties towards Pauline Hanson’s One Nation or other Right-wing forces. These groups call for cuts to overseas aid and restrictions on foreign workers coming to Australia, which sits uneasily with Canberra’s pledge of “stepping up” in the Pacific.
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Eleven days after the Nauru PIF Leaders’ Meeting last September, the Premier of Niue, Sir Toke Talagi, said on Radio New Zealand that “the Pacific Islands Forum is stuck in limbo and making little progress.” Considering Sir Toke’s standing in the region, having been in various leadership roles for his country and in the region since 2002 and the timing of the statement after the Forum’s premier annual gathering, it can be said that such an
utterance was made with much thought. As such, it should not be taken lightly. However, it can be subjected to close analysis to get to the nub of the issue; which can help to re-direct our compass to re-set Pacific regionalism; and to the realisation of our collective aspirations.
Purely from a pedantic linguistic perspective, Sir Toke’s statement is oxymoronic. To be ‘stuck in limbo’ implies that one or something is unable to move from one position to another. It follows therefore that one or something cannot make any progress when ‘stuck in limbo’. However, Sir Toke clarified that the Forum was making progress, albeit, little. He substantiated his comment by his lack of success in trying to increase funding for climate change activities and by his dissatisfaction with the fisheries license systems not doing enough to combat illegal fishing. He also implied the lack of capacity building in Niue and, as such, he is considering appointing youth ambassadors to be posted out to various Forum countries to learn about these issues.
It can be envisaged therefore that the situation depicted by the Premier is best characterised by the Forum being ‘in limbo’ rather than ‘stuck in limbo.’ Being ‘in limbo’ carries the meaning that whilst the Forum may depict conditions of neglect and oblivion - specifically or generally, these do not rule out moving from one position to another. This article assumes such an analytical lens to assess one aspect of Pacific regionalism, aimed ssentially at securing learnings to direct our way forward.
In 1971, the inaugural meeting of the then South Pacific Forum was a joint one that followed separate meetings of two caucuses – one for the founding five independent Pacific Island Countries and the other for Australia and New Zealand (ANZ). In a 2015 report to Fiji’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, I listed 14 issues identified by the 1971 Joint Communique (the only one to date) for regionalism. Those that were aimed at regional economic integration included ‘the possibility of establishing an economic union.’
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In a crucial referendum on self-determination, more than 141,000 New Caledonians went to the polls on 4 November to determine the political status of the French Pacific dependency. After twenty years transition under the 1998 Noumea Accord, the referendum
posed the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”
In an unprecedented turnout, 56.7 per cent of registered voters decided to remain within the French Republic, while 43.3 per cent voted Yes for independence.
These bald figures, with a clear majority opposing full sovereignty, suggest a setback for New Caledonia’s independence coalition, the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS). In reality, the size of the Yes vote put smiles on the faces of independence leaders and supporters.
Daniel Goa is President of the Union Calédonienne (UC) party and spokesperson for the FLNKS. After the referendum, Goa thanked supporters and pledged to continue to another vote in 2020: “We lost on the numbers, but for us it’s a victory.”
“For the Kanak people, the first people, this is a great victory, as we have loudly and clearly expressed our perspective without ambiguity and without recourse,” he said. “Who now will contest the justice of our struggle, who now will challenge our very existence?”
In the aftermath of the referendum, everyone realises that the Kanak independence movement has new wind in its sails. They lost on referendum day, but defied all pre-poll predictions and showed that there is still overwhelming support for independence amongst the indigenous Kanak people (symbolically, in the northern tribe of Tiendanite, home of assassinated FLNKS leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, 100 per cent of those voting said Yes).
“This large Yes vote reinforces our convictions,” Daniel Goa said. “We lacked just 9,000 votes to transform our dream into reality. Despite all the shackles we faced in getting our message out in the campaign, and the fear campaign launched by the other....
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What was supposed to be the summit that showcases Papua New Guinea to some of the world’s powerful economies ended up being the show ground for a US-China power struggle in the largest island in the South Pacific.
It was an APEC Summit of one drama after another, fuelled by the public tussle for influence in what has historically been the domain of influence of the US and its Pacific allies of Australia to a larger extent and New Zealand to some extent.
Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin called the summit a “tragicomedy of errors,” putting the blame squarely not on the host, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill but on the “Chinese government.”
The Jakarta Post newspaper on the other hand called it a “botched Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.” Its editorial carried the headline, ‘Make APEC boring again.’
The war of words between the two economic giants in the APEC membership of China and the United States overshadowed the Port Moresby meeting. For the first time ever in the history of APEC, delegates could not agree on the adoption of the summit declaration.
APEC chair O’Neill reportedly exclaimed, “you know the two big giants in the room, what can I say?” Delegates said the US had wanted a much stronger language in the declaration against the World Trade Organisation while Beijing wanted no mention of fighting protectionism and unfair trade practices in the document. Such a mention could only be targeting at China, they protested. “APEC has got no charter over the World Trade Organisation,” O’Neill was quoted as saying. “That is a fact. Those matters can be raised at the World Trade Organisation.”
Depending on who you talk to, the failure of the adoption of the APEC Summit declaration in Port Moresby was...
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