When it became known that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison would be visiting Vanuatu, few expected he would merely cut a few ribbons and move on. A historic visit such as this almost demands historic results.
But what exactly is Mr Morrison going to announce?
The Daily Post has learned that Australian officials explicitly asked for a security treaty with Vanuatu during Charlot Salwai’s official visit to Canberra last year. But according to Minister of Foreign Affairs Ralph Regenvanu, “we haven’t responded positively yet.”
If the two countries were to sign some sort of agreement, what form would it take? One thing seems certain: anything affecting this country’s neutrality would be a hard sell.
Asked if he thought there was any prospect in a change in Vanuatu’s Non-Aligned status, Mr Regenvanu simply said, “No.”
The foreign minister later clarified that this stance was not aimed specifically at Australia. “We’re not interested in an exclusive security treaty with any one country.”
There seems to be very little space for negotiation where an alliance or a defence pact are concerned. Asked if a defence agreement would necessarily affect Vanuatu’s Non-Aligned status, the minister was clear. “Yeah, it would,” he said.
But that doesn’t rule out an agreement dealing with internal security, law and order, or humanitarian deployments. Mr Regenvanu made it clear that there were many areas that the two countries could improve cooperation, coordination and understanding.
Some of this is already underway, he said. “We are having greater cooperation on police matters, as you can see from his visit.”
Mr Morrison is expected to cut the ribbon on an Australian-funded Police training college facility during his two-day stay. Australia is also contributing funds and resources to Vanuatu’s new national security task force, and backstopping the government’s cybercrime legislation drafting process.
“But in terms of a treaty with Australia,” Mr Regenvanu concluded, “probably not.”
Australia and Vanuatu have both signed the Boe Declaration, which states that climate change is the greatest security threat facing the region. The Daily Post asked Mr Regenvanu if there is any prospect that Vanuatu will be able to leverage that agreement to get concessions from Australia not just in terms of adapting to climate change, but in actually reducing its emissions, which are among the highest in the world, per capita.
The Morrison government, he said, have “their stated view multilaterally, but bilaterally definitely I think we can leverage a lot of stuff with them.”
Ralph Regenvanu said the government of Vanuatu was “delighted” at the prospect of Mr Morrison’s visit.
On the sidelines of last year’s APEC meeting—the first bilateral for Vanuatu in decades—Mr Salwai issued a formal invitation to the Australian PM to visit Vanuatu.
There have been other visits by Australian Prime Ministers to Vanuatu, but this is the first official bilateral visit. It is only the second formal visit for a head of government in nearly thirty years.
Mr Morrison’s precise schedule will only become known this afternoon, following a briefing for media at the Australian High Commission.
People have been wary of Vanuatu becoming too close any other nation, fearing the impact on our independence.
In the early days of the republic, Father Walter Lini famously expelled a French diplomat following a tiff over alleged political interference. And VMF members ended up in an armed stand-off with their police counterparts following an abortive attempt to arrest then-PM Edward Natapei in 2002.
More recently of course, there have been a chorus of voices expressing concern about Chinese influence. Many people saw their worst fears realised when Fairfax published a story alleging that China was in the early stages of negotiating a permanent military presence in Vanuatu.
The government furiously denied the allegations, and Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu accused Fairfax of one-sided reporting. Fairfax unsuccessfully tried to contact government figures for comment over the weekend prior to publication.
In any case, the government stridently defended Vanuatu’s neutral, demilitarised status. Ironically, a defence agreement with Australia would weaken our stance as a Non-Aligned nation, and strengthen the argument that maybe the government’s resolve wasn’t what officials said vis a vis China.
Regardless, cosying up too close to any foreign power would certainly meet resistance at the grassroots level. Remember that the majority of Ni Vanuatu were stateless in their own land under the colonial administration. Many of the once-disenfranchised are still alive and vividly conscious of the cost of colonialism.
While a great many Ni Vanuatu would prefer deeper ties with Australia than with any other nation, there are widely expressed reservations about the sincerity and equality of the relationship.
Visa-free travel between Vanuatu and its developed neighbours, for example, is a major bone of contention for Ni Vanuatu. Right now, it’s easier for a Vanuatu citizen to spend a month or two in Europe than it is to visit Australia or New Zealand.