Vanuatu, US imperialism and the “Defence of Australia” Doctrine
Recent high-level diplomatic meetings between Australia and Vanuatu have received little publicity in mainstream media outlets, only a scant acknowledgement they took place and the outcome was partially successful.
Favourable diplomatic relations between Australia and Vanuatu remain central to the Defence of (of US interests in) Australia doctrine. In recent times the US has thrust greater responsibilities upon Australia to defend 'US interests' in the region. Needless to say, the diplomatic overtures met with opposition from Vanuatu. Full coverage of the diplomatic meetings, therefore, was not forthcoming.
In early February, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu, visited Canberra for meetings with his Australian counterpart, Marise Payne. This high-level diplomacy was awarded twelve short paragraphs of coverage in the Australian newspaper, which acknowledged the signing of a new security pact although stated the outcome would not be exclusive only to Australia. Vanuatu wished to continue its diplomatic positions with both France, a former part-colonial power, and China. (1)
The outcome, therefore, fell short of US-led expectations that the Morrison administration would thrust a suitable agreement upon Vanuatu.
It is important, therefore, to consider the following factors:
Vanuatu forms a significant part of the Defence of Australia (DOA) doctrine where the northern Australian coastal is defended against military incursion. Vanuatu, together with the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, three Melanesian countries, form a significant and important part of Australia defence and security planning. It is important to note Port Vila, capital of Vanuatu, together with Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, rest upon the same arc from Pine Gap as a significant part of Indonesia with highly sensitive shipping-lanes. Port Moresby, capital of PNG, resides within the same arc, from the highly strategically-placed US military facilities based in central Australia, indicating a compatibility of signals communications converging upon the Pentagon.
Australia, historically, was a dominant player in the three Melanesian countries. In recent times, however, concern has been raised about increased influence from China inside the three countries, threatening the Defence of Australia. Despite constant denials, the Australian government think China is secretly attempting to establish military facilities and a defence presence in Vanuatu. (2)
It is interesting, therefore, to note official Australian government media releases about the security pact with Vanuatu spoke of it as being 'bi-lateral' with the stated aim 'to deepen our security relationship'. It was, furthermore, noted that while 'the umbrella deal would cover current security co-operation', no official reference was made to the DOA provision. (3)
Aggressive US-led diplomacy toward China over regional issues has taken place in recent years following the latter’s rapid economic rise, which has increasingly been regarded as a threat to long-standing US domination of the region. Recent warnings from former Australian diplomatic personnel including Michael Townley, who was Ambassador to Washington during the period, 2000-05, have stated that 'a collision between the world's two most powerful nations' was an increasing problem. (4) Many of the diplomatic hostilities have been played out in recent times in the South Pacific, a part of the region allocated to Australia under US-led defence and security planning.
Issues arising in the northern part of the region have increasingly been thrust upon Japan. US-led concerns about Taiwan and the DPRK are dealt with through Tokyo, as the northern regional hub for 'US interests'. Australia is the southern counterpart within the triangular web of diplomatic relations.
Last year, within the context of US-led regional planning, Australia, for example, signed a Pacific-wide security agreement at the Pacific Islands Forum. Both the contents and the style of the diplomatic initiative, however, saw the Boe Agreement (named after the Boe region of Nauru which hosted the Forum) clearly identify the different priorities of Australia, as a close ally of the US, and the Pacific Islands: the latter regarded climate change 'as the region's biggest security challenge'. (5) The same position was not automatically regarded by Australia as a major priority.
Australia has been criticised by Pacific governments as possessing a focus upon security, 'framing the Pacific through the lens of Australian policy priorities'. (6) Further criticism of Australia by Pacific governments has included their concerns with sustainable development: Australia has tended to ignore many economically-based development issues. Australian regional foreign policy, when dealing with economic issues, has also tended to be confined to neo-colonial type relations.
When Australia first embarked upon recent diplomatic initiatives with Vanuatu, Canberra had to consider ideological considerations within the corridors of power in Port Vila. They are surprisingly straightforward, but run counter to a great deal of US-led regional policy filtered through Canberra. It is for this reason the media releases about the diplomacy were neatly tailored so as not to cause unnecessary 'political fallout'.
From its earliest days of independence, Vanuatu became involved with the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a United Nations-based body concentrated within the developing world. While a product of the previous Cold War, NAM has remained operational and a counter-weight to imperialism and neo-colonialism. In 2012, NAM had 120 affiliate member countries, was critical of US policy, possessed a commitment to sustainable development and was a strong supporter of many anti-imperialist and decolonisation struggles including Palestine and the independence movement in West Papua. (7)
The official position of Vanuatu is not as a passive bystander in NAM circles: addressing a Ministerial Meeting of NAM, last April, Foreign Minister Regenvanu, stated the vision of Vanuatu was 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 multi-lateral order. (8)
The Vanuatu position concerning the OPM, fighting Indonesian occupation of the West Papua, has, however, proved a highly divisive issue. While Australia has increasingly courted Indonesia and turned a blind-eye to the illegal occupation of the country, successive Vanuatu governments have actively sought support for the OPM through such bodies as the Pacific Islands Forum. (9)
Australia, likewise, being drawn closer to US-led regional foreign policy 'in light of rising competition from China', has had to contend with Vanuatu possessing a 'fiercely independent foreign policy'. (10) The implications are not difficult to establish. Vanuatu has feared being drawn into 'the influence of Canberra's network of alliances', and is concerned about a return to 'the subjugation of the past', leaving little ambiguity about their strong anti-imperialist position. (11)
In this light, the present government of Vanuatu has maintained its position of not wanting to jeopardise 'its relations with other nations, including France and China'. (12) And, in conclusion to his recent high-level diplomatic visit, Foreign Minister Regenvanu, stated: “We are happy to enter into a security agreement with Australia.....we made it clear it won't be an exclusive agreement, and we can enter into similar security agreements with other partners as we chose.” (13)
It would be nice to have an Australian Foreign Minister possessing such as clear diplomatic vision for his country, as opposed to merely following US-led directives! Washington and the Pentagon clearly use Australia to serve 'US interests' in the wider region. But, the recent security treaty between Australia and Vanuatu was only partially successful. It did not fulfil US-led agendas; their diplomatic silence, subsequently, is deafening. It also remains to be seen how the US will expect Australia to deal with the situation which has arisen with Vanuatu. And they will.
We need an independent foreign policy!
1. Vanuatu pact 'non-exclusive', Australian, 18 February 2019.
2. Ibid, see also, Australia courts Vanuatu, 17 January 2019.
3. Ibid., Australian, 18 February 2019.
4. US, China 'on collision course' over power, Australian, 18 February 2019.
5. Australian, op.cit., 18 February 2019.
6. Morrison's Vanuatu trip, The Conversation, 17 January 2019.
7. The Diplomat, op.cit., 17 January 2019; see also, Website: Why Vanuatu supports West Papua independence, Patrick Kaiku, Port Moresby, 11 February 2019.
8. Ibid., Diplomat, 17 January 2019.
9. Vanuatu seeks support for West Papua, The Vanuatu Independent, 13 August 2018.
10. Diplomat, op.cit., 17 January 2019.
12. Australian, op.cit., 18 February 2019.