President Xi Jinping

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As ABC Pacific Affairs correspondent Stephen Dziedzic noted, the language of the main memorandum committing Vanuatu to the Belt and Road Initiative “could mean anything or nothing.”

That vagueness could leave Vanuatu in a weak position when the two countries decide to hash out what they’ve signed up to.

The document commits the two countries to “the goal of common development, translate mutual complementary strengths into advantages for practical cooperation and sustainable growth.”

This, according to the document, will “enable the two Participants to enhance their political relations, security cooperation and people to people exchanges”.

I challenge anyone to tell me how that’ll work.

Of course, such documents are designed to leave a lot of wiggle room. But the kind of wiggle room here is different from other framework documents.

Consider the Boe Declaration signed at the Pacific Island Forum earlier this year. The language is clear about principles, but is silent on implementation. A declaration is a value statement, but those values are expected to be respected in all relevant practical commitments.

The BRI memorandum seems to worry less about the value statements and more about how the two countries will engage. The agreement specifies five areas of cooperation: Policy coordination; facilities connectivity; unimpeded trade: financial integration; and something called a ‘people to people bond’.

Some of these are further fleshed out in companion documents signed at the same time. An entire MoU, for example, is devoted to human resources development and training.

One thing that Chinese and Pacific islanders seem to have in common is the tendency to place trust more in people than institutions. This is the opposite of what many westerners assume. Libraries full of legislation, regulation and contract law have been constructed to keep things from becoming personal.

The BRI documents seem to go the other direction. They assume a harmonious and collegial relationship, where differences are worked out amicably by people who know and understand one another. These goodwill relationships are apparently to be integrated deep into the bureaucracy.

Contrast this with the kind of engagement sought by Australia and New Zealand, for example. Personal relationships are built and assiduously maintained, but they are considered transferable to a degree, something to be passed from one journeyman development or government officer to another.

That’s probably true to a lesser degree to their Chinese colleagues, but in a westerner’s case, the personal relationship complements formal interaction and agreement, it doesn’t replace it.

A purely professional relationship is not only acceptable, it’s often desirable.

The rhetoric surrounding Vanuatu-China dialogue is often expressed in personal terms. Prime Minister Charlot Salwai earlier this year described China as ‘a best friend to Vanuatu’ (but tellingly not ‘the’ best friend).

Another unique element to the BRI documents is the agreement ‘promoting friendly exchanges between Guangdong… and the Prime Minister’s Office’. There seems to a policy of creating associations between entities in the southern province and Vanuatu. Trading Post Ltd, which published the Daily Post, was encouraged by the Chinese embassy to seek business partners in Guangdong in a proposal concerning a Chinese-language publication. It was ultimately never pursued.

This ‘express our friendship and work out the details later’ may prove to be a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it is that kind of practical-minded approach that allowed Vanuatu and China to resolve questions surrounding VT300+ million in financing used to construct the Melanesian Spearhead Group Headquarters.

Privately, present and former government officials are adamant that the money was given as a grant. Finance staff assured the Daily Post there is no documentation to suggest the money was given as a loan. Nonetheless, a face-saving compromise was worked out, allowing Vanuatu to accept the Chinese version of the story, and China to ‘forgive’ the ‘loan’, effectively admitting that Vanuatu bureaucrats were right all along.

On the other hand, it’s details like this that justify the need for a bit of formality—and formalism—in a bilateral relationship. If you keep your receipts, you never have to cope with the embarrassment of a debt that one party didn’t know existed.

Vanuatu’s relationship with Japan, New Zealand, Australia and countless other countries feature a great many bilateral documents and agreements. But they are largely signed within a multilateral framework.

The Boe Declaration is one. Without creating explicit bonds, it will shine a light on region-wide action (or lack thereof) concerning security, emphasising climate change, human security and economic security.

And love it or hate it, the WTO applies to all its members, including China. So trade agreements have very clear rules they’re meant to adhere to.

Not so the Belt and Road. Chinese officials, from President Xi on down, have long said they prefer one-on-one relationships, and to work in a spirit of cooperation and friendliness. So far, there’s no reason to doubt their sincerity—in our own case at very least.

But the question has to be asked: What if one country does something that harms or insults the other? What if the amicable relationship breaks down?

It’s happened before. For a few brief weeks about a decade ago, Prime Minister Serge Vohor ignored the advice of the Council of Ministers and tried to forge a bond with Taiwan. The effort ultimately failed, but things got so heated there was even a physical altercation with the Chinese Ambassador.

It’s impossible to imagine Charlot Salwai doing anything so undignified, but the question remains. What if friendly dialogue fails?

If we apply that question to the United States, Japan or Australia, the answer is fairly clear: We can do as Timor Leste did with their border dispute and take the matter to the relevant international body. We’d still be at a real disadvantage, but there would at least be a perceived need to play by the rules.

The Belt and Road Initiative seems different. It seems to require continuing friendship to function. That’s a hard promise to make in a marriage, and harder still in a business. Can such a promise ever be kept between governments?

Time will tell.

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