Understanding foreign influence in the Pacific ahead of the Vanuatu PM’s first trip to Canberra

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China’s growing influence throughout the Pacific should point to one thing for Canberra: Australia needs to become more sophisticated in its engagement in the region.

Tomorrow, Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Charlot Salwai will land in Australia for his first official visit after reports earlier this year that China was constructing a military base on the Pacific nation, and how well the visit goes depends largely on whether the Australian Government can effectively listen to and respond to the concerns of Pacific leaders.

Diplomatic approaches to Pacific Island nations must always consider and remember our shared regional concerns, rather than being premised on the idea of “us” Australia and “them” Pacific Island nations.

Having strong and stable governments throughout the South Pacific is central to maintaining the security of the region, and the days of Canberra asserting itself as a “deputy sheriff” to the United States across the region have ended.

Many Pacific Island nations have a sophisticated approach to diplomacy that involves building ties with numerous foreign nations, and China is often the preferred provider of large-scale infrastructure, partly because it is prepared to fund projects that other donors will not.

“Australia needs to understand that our projects with China do not involve debt trap diplomacy,” Vanuatu’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Ralph Regenvanu, for whom I used to provide legal advice, told me ahead of the trip this weekend.

Pacific nations to choose their own independent future

In the book New Pacific Diplomacy, Greg Fry and Sandra Tarte explore how Pacific leaders are increasingly engaging in new strategies to control the diplomatic agenda in trade negotiations, to promote sustainable development and better governance of the oceans and to inform global compacts to address climate change.

In all of these areas, the Pacific as a region is increasingly defining its own agenda, to the exclusion of Australia and New Zealand.

Canberra must learn how to better respond to the agendas of Pacific leaders individually and on a case by case basis, as Pacific leaders, like politicians everywhere, are not equally worthy of Australian Government support.

The story of Vanuatu and its relationship with Beijing and Canberra is illustrative of the complicated politics at play in Melanesian countries.

Government instability has long-been the norm in contemporary politics with political parties constantly splitting and reforming, based on a fragile web of personal and political alliances.

Just this week, another motion of no confidence against Mr Salwai was tabled in Parliament.

Vanuatu’s turbulent political context has meant that investors who have ready access to cash often have extensive leverage over the formation of government.

These issues played out publicly in Vanuatu back in 2014 in what was dubbed “the bribery case” where 14 members of Parliament — including acting prime minister Moana Carcasses — were found guilty in 2016 of either paying or accepting bribes to support a motion of no confidence against the Natuman government.

Current Mr Salwai was then elected in a snap election just weeks later.

Complex financial webs influence Pacific politics

However, looking back, it is important to note that funds for the bribes in the high profile corruption scandal came through a complex web of financial sector companies via Hong Kong and then managed through a transaction of land held by Marie Louise Carcasses, wife of former prime minister Moana Carcasses.

And while the current Vanuatu Government is adamant that it will not support the development of a foreign military base, the bribery case clearly demonstrates one of the many ways that Pacific governments can easily become beholden to foreign interests.

Back in 2013, the government of former prime minister Carcasses, for instance, initially pursued an agenda in 2013 to lease all of Vanuatu’s major airports to a Singapore based investment company.

The deal, which included a $350 million cash windfall payment to be provided to the company by Vanuatu, was narrowly avoided.

The escaped deal was followed by accusations and counter-accusations in 2015 that Vanuatu was involved in schemes to sell honorary citizenship to Chinese investors through various Hong Kong based companies.

Given these various relationships to foreign investors and funding, Australia must look to support Pacific leaders who are tackling the drivers of undue foreign influence in their government.

This means supporting leaders who are committed to promoting transparent government that operates in the interests of their constituents.

‘I hope we can find a way forward’: Vanuatu FM

Mr Regenvanu recently described the steps taken in the Pacific nation to limit the political influence over government:

“We have introduced reforms to stop government interference in state owned enterprises,” he said.

“And to limit political interference in the appointment of Director Generals of government agencies as well as diplomatic appointments.

These efforts by the current government is building off of previous land reforms from 2014 that I was personally involved in drafting that ended the large-scale corrupt leasing of urban and customary land across Vanuatu.

This was an important step in limiting the influence of foreign and long-term expatriate residents over political and legal processes in Vanuatu.

And while Australia supported these initiatives, it was only to a very limited degree, and Canberra never appeared to really understand the wider political implications of the land reform package.

Vanuatu is a test case for Australia’s capacity to build a new style of relationship with Pacific nations.

Limiting the influence of China will involve creating better partnerships with more open dialogue, it will also involve supporting leaders who are trying to build better government.

Mr Salwai will no doubt bring to Canberra a series of requests.

“We want a ‘special visa’ category for seasonal agricultural workers,” Mr Regenvanu said.

Australia needs to be prepared to listen and respond to Pacific leaders requests, particularly when those leaders are the ones who themselves are attempting to strengthen their own governments and remove it from the undue influence of foreign investors.


SOURCE: ABC NEWS

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