Old and New Fears of Invasion in the South West Pacific: Australia and Vanuatu

Elizabeth Rechniewski, The University of Sydney

Part 1. Australia ‘steps up’ in the Pacific

From the middle of the nineteenth century on, the issue of control of the islands of the South West Pacific was a constant preoccupation of the Australian political class, and intermittently of the press and public too: the British colonies feared ‘encirclement’ by hostile foreign powers who might use the islands as a staging post for invasion. These security concerns found expression in the ‘Russophobia’ of the mid 1880s which reached a high degree of public hysteria in March 1885 with belief in imminent Russian invasion; in the hostile reactions to American and German annexations in the Pacific in the late 1890s; and increasingly in fears of being ‘swamped by Asian hordes’, focused at first on the Chinese and later on the Japanese. Wild rumours of a ‘Chinese Invasion’ could be found throughout the Australian press in the 1880s and imaginary invasions were serialised in popular fiction. While these concerns extended to the whole arc of islands that spanned the east coast of Australia, I have been particularly interested in tracing policy towards the New Hebrides (after independence Vanuatu): by the late nineteenth century the uncertain status of these islands, divided between French and British control, first through the Joint Naval Commission and then from 1906 as the Anglo-French Condominium, made them, it was argued, more vulnerable to invasion. The issue of control of the New Hebrides, and expulsion from Australia of the Kanaka workers, most of whom came from these islands, was a major motivating factor in the move towards Federation. But although the Constitution apportioned responsibility for Pacific affairs to the new nation, Australia had to be content with lobbying the British government to ‘take back control’ of the jointly administered territory. And this Australia did regularly, but unsuccessfully, until the Second World War saw the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops on the islands.


If I recall these fears, it is because, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the issue of control of the islands of the South West Pacific is once again of major concern to Australia, although this time the fear is of the wielding of Chinese economic and political power and possible expanded military presence. Australia’s response has been the ‘Pacific step-up’ policy that aims to counter growing Chinese influence in the region and includes both a record $1.4 billion in aid and increased ministerial engagement. Vanuatu, considered particularly vulnerable to such external influence, has been the subject of three high level bilateral ministerial meetings this year. Prime Minister Scott Morrison went to Fiji and Vanuatu in January 2019 (the first trip to Vanuatu by an Australian Prime Minister since Bob Hawke in 1990) and announced the ‘stepping up’ of Australia’s commitment; negotiations took place in February in Canberra over a non-exclusive security pact; and in late October the Foreign Minister Marise Payne visited the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
There is little doubt that Vanuatu has been the object of sustained Chinese attention since the turn of the century. China has invested in Vanuatu enterprises, financed large-scale infrastructure and given generous loans to the government, to the extent that nearly half of Vanuatu’s AUS$440,000 million debt is owed to China (all figures here in Australian dollars). In recent years, Beijing has given the country a $19 million convention centre, new prime minister’s offices and has built, with concessional loans, a $37 million government IT system and a $114 million wharf capable of taking container ships. Now the largest in the South Pacific, the wharf has given rise to rumours that China is seeking to establish a permanent military presence on Vanuatu, although some experts have downplayed these fears. What is clear is that the port has not experienced the increase in shipping that might justify the loan and enable the government to pay it back (David Wroe, ‘The Great Wharf of China’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April 2018).
Of the six Pacific governments that owe money to China, a recent Lowy Institute report found that China has become the single largest lender to Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu and that these nations appear to be among those most heavily indebted to China anywhere in the world (Roland Rajah, Jonathan Pryke and Alexandre Dayant, Oceans of Debt? Belt and Road and the Debt Diplomacy in the Pacific, September 2019). Modelling from the research shows four of the six countries that borrow from China—Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji—are already effectively at a warning threshold and, with the exception of Fiji, are likely to be pushed into unsustainable debt. The report singles out Vanuatu as a particular concern, given that in late 2018 it signed up for another large, loan-financed Chinese roads project.
Just before the APEC summit in November 2018, in a secret agreement later leaked to the media, China agreed to grant Vanuatu $60 million for a somewhat mysterious, previously unheralded, initiative, the ‘Container Inspection Equipment Project’. This grant represents about one third of annual aid to Vanuatu but there is no publicly available information about what the Container Inspection Equipment Project is, or what the money will be used for. The documents also reveal that Beijing will lend Vanuatu about $70 million to upgrade roads on the islands of Tanna and Malekula. Vanuatu will not have to repay the concessional loan for seven years, and when it does, interest will be charged at two per cent a year. China also agreed to ‘forgive’ one of Vanuatu’s debts — a 2004 loan worth almost $4 million.
Private Chinese investment is also growing: the most significant new venture is ‘Rainbow International City’ or ‘Little Singapore’ being driven by FPF Company Limited a self-described multi-profile company that also owns Vanuatu’s first English-Chinese newspaper, the Vila Times. This new city is to be built on around 87 hectares of land at Narpow Point on Efate, about nine kilometres from Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila. It is touted to cater for high-end tourism and foreigners wishing to buy into Efate’s stunning foreshore and no doubt benefit from Vanuatu’s advantageous tax system (there are no direct personal or corporate income taxes in Vanuatu). Little has so far been built, however, apart from a wall that surrounds the land and leads the local people to question to what extent they will benefit from the project (Melissa Clarke and Prianka Srinivasan, ‘Chinese Private Investment Leading Beijing’s Push into the Pacific,’ ABC News, 24 October 2019).
The Lowy Institute report questions the thesis that China is engaged in deliberate ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy but does point to the increasing risks associated with continuing large-scale loans. There is little doubt that Australia views with concern the security and political implications of China’s increasing investment in the region and has in turn stepped up its own financial interventions. Last week the Australian Government announced that it would loan the PNG Government $440 million to fill a budget deficit, counter to its usual practice of tying aid to specific projects under close monitoring. Australia’s decision is ‘completely unrelated’ to the Federal Government’s desire to curb China’s influence in the Pacific, said Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, a statement that convinced few observers. Australia is the largest bilateral aid donor to Vanuatu, equivalent to 39% of Overseas Development Assistance in 2017-2018 (excluding China which does not publish ODA figures), with a total budget of $66.2 million in aid in 2019-2020.
Given the lack of transparency around the objectives of their aid or the rationale for infrastructure projects, it is hard to discover if Chinese interventions have been significant in reducing poverty or enhancing political and economic development. Vanuatu has a population of around 281,000 (2017), 70% of whom live in rural areas across 65 of the country’s more than 80 islands. One-third of Vanuatu’s population lacks access to basic services and more than 12% live below the national basic needs poverty line. While it is clear that Australia’s recent increased interest in the Pacific stems from security and geopolitical concerns, it does also have and has had for some time, a broader agenda for its interventions and transparency in the projects it funds. If I make this comparison it is not in order to single out Australia for undue praise but because its stated aid priorities enable me to highlight one egregious problem in Vanuatu: the status of women.
Notable in Vanuatu are the profound disadvantages under which women live and labour and their under-representation in the public sphere. There are no women in the 52-member parliament and only a handful have sat in it since independence. Violence against women and children is the most common and widespread crime with 72% of women experiencing physical and sexual violence in their lifetime, one of the highest rates in the world, though in line with several other Pacific nations (Australian Aid Report: ‘Pacific Women: Shaping Pacific Development. Vanuatu.’ January 2019). Australia has sought to work with successive governments to advance the rights of women and children with $11.9 million committed over 10 years (2012–2022) to advance the status of women. In late October 2019, when the Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne visited the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, she highlighted as one of her principal aims to ‘engage on women’s policy issues across government and the private sector, particularly to discuss women’s economic security and the safety of women and their families, two important focuses of our gender equality engagement in the region.’
One might be impressed by this commitment had we not learnt (3 December 2019) that the entirety of the aid budget to Pakistan, which included an important focus on the rights of women and the education of girls, has been redirected to the Pacific. Since 2013, moreover, when the conservative Coalition government came to power, the aid budget has been reduced by 27% so that it now represents only 0.82% of federal government spending, a record low.

Part 2 : Australia and Vanuatu: a mismatch in policies and priorities risks undermining Australia’s attempts to ‘step up’ in the Pacific

The extent to which Australia should fear Chinese ‘soft power’ interventions in the Pacific region, and even covert political interference within Australia itself, is the subject of intense debate here, animated by interventions from former Prime Ministers and Premiers (Kevin Rudd, Paul Keating, Bob Carr) and recent essays, notably Peter Hartcher’s much commented Red Flag: Waking up to China’s Challenge (Quarterly Essay 76, November 2019). While I cannot discuss the many issues Hartcher raises, as I argued in my previous article, one area of Australian concern is the evidence of increasing Chinese influence in the South Pacific, including in Vanuatu. A century-old preoccupation with the security threat from the arc of islands surrounding the east coast of Australia finds periodic expression today in discussion of Chinese intentions in relation to the construction of the large wharf which they financed at Luganville, on the island of Santo. Rumours that China intends to use the port either as a military base for its ships, or at least as a facility that will give it rapid and secure access to the region make occasional headlines in the press and are the subject of think-tank reports (‘Ocean Horizons: Strengthening Maritime Security in Indo-Pacific Island States,’ Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), 5 December 2019). There is, however, a deep irony in these concerns, since in 2015 the Northern Territory Government sold a 99-year lease for the port of Darwin to the Chinese owned company Landbridge, blindsiding Federal Government and Defence concerns.

Another issue that made the headlines late last year concerned Dan McGarry, the media director of the Daily Post, Vanuatu’s only daily newspaper. A Canadian national who has lived in Vanuatu for 16 years and has a family there, McGarry was initially barred from returning to Vanuatu when he tried to fly home, ironically after attending a conference in Brisbane on media freedom. While a number of aspects of the Daily Post’s independently-minded reporting might have upset the government, McGarry links the ban to the newspaper’s negative reporting on certain Chinese investments and other forms of influence (Max Walden, ‘Journalist says he’s barred from Vanuatu over reporting on Chinese influence.’ 18 November 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-18). The issue that may have triggered the ban was the Daily Post’s coverage of the forced deportation in July 2019 of six people of Chinese heritage, four of whom had Vanuatu passports. They were reportedly detained on allegations of internet scamming by plain-clothed Chinese authorities, who were accompanied by Vanuatu police, denied legal representation and placed on a charter flight to China. In relation to this incident, the Daily Post queried whether the sale of passports, mainly to Chinese nationals (an important revenue stream for Vanuatu), increased dependency on China: ‘China can now demand favours in exchange for continued benign neglect of the programme.’ (Dan McGarry, ‘Six Chinese Deported,’ Daily Post, 6 July 2019).

As I detailed in a previous article, Australia has ‘stepped up’ its diplomatic presence and aid to Pacific islands, and notably to Vanuatu, to counter Chinese influence: ‘we remain confident that we are Vanuatu’s strategic partner of choice’ declared Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in April 2018, during her fourth visit to Vanuatu. And while China has lent heavily to the country and financed infrastructure, Australia remains Vanuatu’s largest aid donor. Australia’s interventions are not, however, always well-tailored to the concerns and priorities of the recipients of these attentions. Ben Bohane, a respected and experienced journalist based in Vanuatu, who has long reported on the Pacific islands, lists several areas where Australia might improve its relationship with Vanuatu: through trade, which is heavily weighted in Australia’s favour, and by easing immigration restrictions. Visitors to Australia from Vanuatu have to fill in onerous and costly visa applications (a visitor’s visa costs around AU$185), whereas they need none to go to China. It would, however, be surprising if Australia made an exception in their favour to its strict if selective immigration policies. (Ben Bohane, ‘Missing a Trick in the Pacific’, Sydney Morning Herald, 21-22 December 2019).

There is an even more significant point of contention that arises from Australia’s failure to act on climate change. In December, the Vanuatu ambassador John Licht argued at the International Court in The Hague for the crime of ‘ecocide’ to be included in the Court’s remit, taking up the arguments of the global movement ‘Stop Ecocide’. Along with the other Pacific islands, Vanuatu has argued at the UN and in other fora for stronger action on climate change. And here a major conflict with Australia arises. For over the last seven years of Coalition rule in particular, the issue of climate change has been so internally divisive for the Liberal and National parties, and any attempt to address it so virulently decried in the media by influential opinion makers and resource lobbyists, that successive Australian governments have totally failed to respond to the demands of our Pacific neighbours (or ‘family’ as Scott Morrison likes to call them) for more action.

Instead of being a leader in the region, Australia risks being seen as indifferent to these nations’ plight; or worse, that it views them with a neo-colonial contempt. Deputy PM Michael McCormack’s comments in April 2019, when questioned over the Pacific Islands’ concerns, both downplayed the impact of climate change and represented the islands as client states of Australian aid whose only role was to supply workers to Australia:

They’ll continue to survive because many of their workers come here and pick our fruit, pick our fruit grown with hard Australian enterprise and endeavour and we welcome them and we always will.
(https://www.abc.net.au › news › mccormack-apology-pick-our-fruit, April 21 2019)

His comments rang particularly hollow in Vanuatu, a country that lost thousands of its people to the ‘black-birding’ trade that brought many so-called Kanaka workers to the Queensland plantations in the late nineteenth century, often recruited by deception or force.

Last year’s Pacific Islands Forum almost collapsed over Australia’s refusal to do more to reduce carbon emissions and to recognise the existential risks facing these low-lying nations. Australia was denounced as a ‘bully’ as it forced the final communique to be watered down and disappointed the islands’ hopes on four key issues: that Australia would not use the Kyoto credit loophole in order to maintain a higher level of emissions; that Australia would join calls for net zero emissions by 2050; for restrictions on coal mining; and that it would restart its contributions to the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which were stopped last year. (Report by Richie Merzian, climate and energy programme director at the Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, 16 August 2019, rfi.asia-pacific).

Here again a deep irony underpins Australia’s position, for our continent seems to be among the first to suffer the most extreme impact of climate change. As Australia burns, the Pacific Island nations might be forgiven for experiencing a certain schadenfreude…instead, displaying great generosity of spirit, on 5 January 2020 the government of Vanuatu pledged 20million vatu (AU$250,000) to assist the Rural Fire Service. ‘As a Pacific neighbour and friend, we have watched as Australia has been devastated by these horrific bushfires. We offer whatever assistance we can in this time of need, as Australia has always done in ours,’ said acting Prime Minister Jotham Napat. Napat said his country had ‘watched in awe’ the work of the volunteer firefighters. ‘It shows the true Australian spirit and one which we are very proud of, as your friend and neighbour.’
(https://www.abc.net.au › pacific-nations-pledge-aid-for-australias-bushfires)

It remains to be seen whether the shocking devastation of the bushfires will force the Australian government to step up to its responsibilities and find common cause on climate with its Pacific neighbours.

Elizabeth Rechniewski, The University of Sydney

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