January is an odd time for high level visits to the Pacific. But Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to focus on the region at the start of the year indicates he listened to the criticism of his failure to attend the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Nauru last September.
This visit began and ended with security. The Vanuatu leg of the trip provided a clear illustration that, when it comes to security, what Canberra understands (and wants) does not necessarily line up with the needs of Pacific island countries.
Vanuatu is seeking support for domestic security issues, such as increasing its police force. This is more of a priority than a security treaty with Australia, as Canberra had proposed during the Vanuatu prime minister’s 2018 visit to Australia – it was rejected at the time. Ahead of Morrison’s visit, Vanuatu’s foreign minister, Ralph Reganvanu, reiterated there was no appetite in his government to enter into an exclusive security agreement with any country.
Vanuatu’s longstanding membership of the Non-Aligned Movement (formed during the Cold War by states who did not wish to be aligned with either of the then superpowers) is part of what informs this position.
Something like the Australia-Solomon Islands security treaty – which envisages rapid deployment of Australian troops (subject to consent by both governments) – would be highly problematic for most people in Vanuatu, a country that places high value on its hard-won independence and sovereignty.
The visit to Fiji was particularly significant given strained relationships between the two governments since the 2006 coup. Some in Australia’s foreign policy community believe the freeze pushed Fiji’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, to build relationships with China, Russia, and others to the detriment of Canberra in terms of influence.
That’s why securing the Black Rock redevelopment deal last year – a site that’s to become a regional hub for training of defence and security personnel – is a success for Australia. Having Morrison there to break ground on the project may indicate all is now forgiven on both sides.
However, a visit by the leader of the region’s largest democracy and the apparent credibility it gives to Bainimarama’s government will be a disappointment to those who have ongoing concerns about human rights and democratic governance in Fiji.
The Fiji trip unveiled a Fiji-Australia Vuvale Partnership, touted as elevating the relationship beyond diplomacy. The agreement includes a commitment to annual leaders’ meetings, something that already exists between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Other than that, we have yet to see what it will look like in practice.
Further to last year’s announcement of the creation of an Office of the Pacific in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Morrison used this trip to announce Ewen McDonald (currently Australia’s High Commissioner to New Zealand) as its head.
McDonald will work on ensuring Australia’s engagement with the Pacific informs the work of all relevant government departments. This will include Fiji’s joining the Pacific Labour Scheme and steering the revisions of import restrictions on kava that were announced in Port Vila. Currently, the maximum amount of kava that can be brought in to Australia is 2kg per adult due to concerns about substance abuse in Australian Indigenous communities.
What was said (and just as importantly what wasn’t) during this week’s visit to the region indicates Australia needs to do more listening and learning. For too long, people in the Pacific have felt their voices have not been heard when it comes to how Australia engages in the region.
In Vanuatu, Morrision demonstrated particular tone-deafness on the issue of ease of travel. Across the region, people are frustrated about the difficulties they face in getting visas to visit Australia.
The Australian government announced a frequent traveller visa card on the margins of last year’s APEC summit. This is intended for politicians, sports people and business leaders. But its narrow scope doesn’t cut it as far as people in Vanuatu are concerned. Officials transiting to attend international meetings or families visiting students at Australian universities, for instance, aren’t included.
Morrison also isn’t listening when it comes to Australian broadcasting to the Pacific. He announced A$17.1 million dollars to fund TV content for broadcast to and in the region. This money is to be funnelled to commercial providers via Free TV Australia, snubbing the established Pacific expertise of the ABC and SBS/NITV. Not to mention their reputation in the region.
This ignores specific representations from the Pacific which have stressed time and again what they want is high quality content to raise the level of public debate about the issues they care about.
Scott Morrison did “show up” though, as he had planned. It’s a first step. Whether Australia-Pacific relationships are now on the right path, we have yet to see.
The foreign policy community met with relief the announcement Morrison’s first overseas trip for 2019 would be to Vanuatu and Fiji. The trip is a long overdue symbol of a priority outlined in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper: “stepping up our engagement in the Pacific”.
engage with the Pacific with greater intensity and ambition, deliver more integrated and innovative policy and make further, substantial long-term investments in the region’s development.
The trip had a strong defence focus, with Morrison saying Australia’s contribution to Vanuatu’s police and security will ensure “the stability of our region”. He is also reportedly negotiating a bilateral security agreement. This represents a deeper militarisation of Australia’s Pacific foreign policy.
Morrison’s aims to formalise security relations are an attempt to gain influence in the face of China’s rising competition. Australia’s undiplomatic and somewhat hysterical response to rumours of a Chinese military base being built in Vanuatu in 2018 highlights Canberra’s sensitivity to “foreign” intervention in the South Pacific.
The government’s recent pattern of providing support for PNG’s Manus Island naval base, Fiji’s Black Rock Base, or new Patrol Boats to 12 Pacific Island nations, is part of a tectonic shift that has occurred in foreign policy toward the Pacific.
Australia’s focus is security, concentrating on external threats and the possibility of internal instability. The Pacific’s concern, however, is sustainable development and climate change, which Australia seems to ignore.
The question is whether Canberra will simply continue framing the Pacific through the lens of Australian policy priorities or focus on what the Pacific wants.
Australia already has significant defence relations with the other Pacific Island military nations – PNG and Fiji. Canberra has a longstanding defence cooperation relationship with PNG and this trip will likely lead to greater defence cooperation with Fiji – especially as Australia beat China in the bid to build the Black Rock Base.
And in 2017, under then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Australia negotiated a bilateral security treaty with the Solomon Islands security cooperation agreement. This agreement allows Australian police personnel to deploy rapidly to Solomon Islands (with the consent of both countries) if there is a threat, which includes natural disasters.
With regards to Vanuatu, Australia is already its main development assistance partner. And Australia’s trading and investment relationship with Vanuatu is as significant as is possible with a small island nation of 285,000 people. And out of the Pacific nations and Timor Leste, Vanuatu has the larger number of workers in Australia and New Zealand as part of the Seasonal Worker Program.
In the 1980s Australia gave Vanuatu a patrol boat to police its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and will give a modern advanced vessel as part of the Pacific Maritime Security Program. This program, detailed in the 2016 Defence White Paper, is a A$2 billion commitment to the region over 30 years, and seeks to support regional countries in defending their maritime boundaries from transnational crime and illegal fishing.
The Australian Federal Police also has a longstanding training relationship with the Vanuatu Police through DFAT’s Policing and Justice Support Program. In 2018 it was announced that Australia would train 300 new recruits.
Despite all of this, the Morrison Government is reportedly placing increased security cooperation with Vanuatu high on the agenda. So, why now? Perhaps because Canberra’s Pacific “step up” has not all been plain sailing and relations with Vanuatu have been strained recently.
In the past, Australia’s relations with the Pacific had been characterised by aid and development rather than security. Canberra remains the region’s number one aid donor. However, under successive Liberal governments, the aid budget has declined.
This has continued under the Morrison government and there is concern militarisation will draw funds away from development projects that more closely meet the interests of Pacific Island nations.
The other key plank in the government’s Pacific “step up” was the announcement of a infrastructure development bank. This multi-billion dollar initiative is short on detail but plans to provide loans for “high priority” infrastructure projects including telecommunications, energy, transport and water.
The loans will be provided at concessional rates and the bank is aimed at countering Chinese influence. Australia has criticised China’s debt book diplomacy, so increasing the debt pool of Pacific countries seems at odds with these concerns.
Morrison’s Pacific pivot is in full swing. So far, the Infrastructure Bank raises more questions than it answers. The security focus of Morrison’s trip is likely to lead to more speculation about what Australia wants to give. If we want to build sustainable relationships, we should be listening closely to what Vanuatu wants to get from any security agreement.
Rumour has it that Vanuatu has agreed to a Chinese request to establish a military base. The substance of this rumour is highly speculative at the least and disingenuous at most. Regardless of the truth, the fact that it raises alarm about the threat of Chinese military expansionism speaks volumes about Australian foreign policy, particularly toward the Pacific.
On Monday, Fairfax Media reported that “China had approached Vanuatu” about setting up a “permanent military presence” – in other words, a base.
The article went on to speculate about the dramatic strategic importance of the “globally significant move that could see the rising superpower sail warships on Australia’s doorstep”. Furthermore, this Chinese base “would … upend the long standing strategic balance in the region” and would likely be followed by bases elsewhere.
Multiple international media outlets have syndicated the story. Much of the coverage alluded to military threats and a shift in the strategic balance. The language is reminiscent of Cold War bipolarity: “their” gain is “our” loss.
On face value, this sounds like a serious geostrategic issue for Australia. But on close examination, the threat is more apparent than real. An indication of which is that nowhere are Chinese or Vanuatuan interests in provoking this form of strategic competition explained.
From the beginning, every assertion was countered by one of the primary players. Multiple representatives of the Vanuatu government have been at pains to deny the story. For instance, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu was quoted as saying:
No-one in the Vanuatu Government has ever talked about a Chinese military base in Vanuatu of any sort.
As the story spiralled out of control, he then told SBS News it was “fake news” concocted by a Fairfax Media journalist.
Multiple Chinese government sources have denied the story and also described it as “fake news”. China also has assured the Australian government that the story has no validity.
In the original article, it was noted that talks between China and Vanuatu were only “preliminary discussions” and that “no formal proposals had been put to Vanuatu’s government.” So given these caveats, and the comprehensive denials, this raises some serious questions about why this rumour was newsworthy in the first place.
So where did it come from? Presumably Fairfax Media would only have acted if the information was from a highly placed Australian government source that could be verified. Presumably this unnamed source has leaked sensitive intelligence, but it is curious that no Australian Federal Police investigation has been announced.
This has been the past practice from the Turnbull government in relation to national security leaks, and there is no sign the government is at all concerned about this leak.
In contrast, it has used this rumour for megaphone diplomacy against both Vanuatu and China. For example, after accepting the Chinese government’s denial, the prime minister said:
We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbours of ours.
And it was the latter rather than the former statement that was covered by many media outlets.
This is very telling. Canberra is clearly sending signals to Beijing and Port Vila that it maintains significant strategic interests in the region (and is a message not lost on other Pacific capitals).
This concern is not new as Australia practised strategic denial in the South Pacific against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. More recently, speculation about Fiji’s relations with China and Russia was raised. But megaphone diplomacy with Fiji has proven unsuccessful in the past.
This approach simply rehashes colonial tropes about Pacific Island Nations being economically unsustainable, corrupt, and easily influenced by great powers. This is reinforced by China’s alleged influence borne from budget support, and capital and aid flows into the Pacific.
What these colonial stereotypes fail to acknowledge is that the foreign policies of Pacific Island countries have matured. Vanuatu is a committed member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), eschewing formal military alliances and entanglements with great powers. The lesson of Fiji’s strong stance against Australian sanctions is that it too has created an independent foreign policy. Neither country will be easily influenced by foreign powers, including Australia.
Returning to the “truth”. It is true that China’s influence in the region has grown dramatically in recent years, especially during the sanctions years from 2006 to 2014, when Canberra attempted to isolate Fiji.
It is also true that military diplomacy is a key element of China’s foreign policy approach (to the Pacific as in Africa). A final truth is that Vanuatu has a high level of debt dependence on China and is a major beneficiary of Chinese aid. However, this does not mean that Vanuatu is being influenced into accepting a Chinese military base.
At some stage, Vanuatu might very well sign an agreement that allows transit and refuelling of Chinese vessels, as is commonplace in international relations. As Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop told Radio National: “these sorts of visits are normal for many neighbours around the world.”
If so, then all we have learned from this episode is that old colonial habits die hard, and the chances of dispassionately dealing with the geo-strategic rise of China are narrowing.