Partner of choice?

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.”

Frequent flyers
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.