When it became known that 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 PM 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, 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. 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.”
PM 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,” 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 Minister 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 PM Morrison’s visit.
On the sidelines of last year’s APEC meeting—the first bilateral for Vanuatu in decades, PM 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.