3 October 2023
The View from Vanuatu
Whenever there’s a looming motion of no confidence in Vanuatu’s government or visiting foreign dignitaries, local pigs get nervous.
In a culture which reveres pigs and regularly sacrifices them to seal the deal – from weddings and funerals to political alliances – there’s been a flurry of recent “kastom” pig killings. Vanuatu has hosted a stream of foreign VIPs coming to court this Pacific island nation, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Australia’s Governor-General David Hurley and regional leaders attending the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) summit.
Earlier this month, a no-confidence motion saw the Opposition roll the Kalsakau government after only eight months in power. However, a fresh motion by the new Opposition has triggered another vote potentially to be held later this week. Vanuatu’s political instability continues.
Usually these motions, which frustrate a population that just wants political stability, are battled on domestic issues. The move against the Kalsakau government was different. Although the Opposition had claimed the trigger was the introduction of a new minimum wage, many observers saw another reason: to cancel a security deal that Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau had signed with Australia during a visit to Canberra. The new prime minister, Sato Kilman, had the backing of China and Indonesia to try to kill the deal and has already signalled the security pact needs to be “reviewed”.
In the fallout comes questions about the way Canberra went about securing the pact. Did the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Defence understand that getting Kalsakau to sign such a pact without Cabinet approval might endanger his position? Did they fully comprehend the history of Vanuatu’s staunch neutrality? Vanuatu was the first Pacific nation to join the Non-Aligned Movement and has long valued its independence from any superpower alliances, with the familiar Pacific island refrain of “friends to all, enemies to none”.
In 2019, Vanuatu politely rebuffed Scott Morrison’s attempt to secure a strategic deal during his visit there, saying that Australia could take comfort from the fact that Vanuatu’s neutrality has also prevented it from doing deals with China, the United States and others. Yet Australia persisted and its pressure may have cost Kalsakau his job.
Ironically, new prime minister Sato Kilman was rolled from government in 2011 for a similar reason. After Vanuatu’s Cabinet had agreed it would not support Indonesia’s proposed membership in the MSG, Kilman flew to the Fiji meeting and endorsed it anyway. Given Vanuatu’s longstanding support for West Papuan independence and that Kilman had violated a Cabinet decision, he found himself ousted by a motion of no confidence soon after.
Kilman, who has a history of supporting logging interests and Indonesian policy, teamed up with Bob Loughman from the Vanua’aku Pati (“My Land Party”) to overturn Kalsakau’s government. When he was recently prime minister, Bob Loughman signed at least five memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with China during foreign minister Wang Yi’s visit. Loughman promised to release details of the MOUs, which included Chinese aid for things like a “weather station” and “hydrographic assistance”, but never did.
The new government in Vanuatu is not the only setback for Australian interests in its near region.
Vanuatu also hosted last month the first in-person MSG summit since COVID-19. The MSG was formed in 1986 with a mandate to coordinate among Melanesian nations and support decolonisation, primarily in New Caledonia and West Papua. Since then, the organisation has granted membership to the FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front), the pro-independence indigenous group in New Caledonia, but pressure from Indonesia – especially since it became an associate member – has not only prevented membership for West Papua, but prompted internal division that has paralysed the MSG.
Indonesia proved its diplomatic heft at the summit in Vanuatu by sending the largest delegation and securing the outcomes it wanted, particularly denying again West Papua’s campaign for membership as a Melanesian people living under brutal occupation by Indonesia. Observers joked that the body has now morphed into the Indonesian Spearhead Group. The role played by the MSG’s new director-general, Leonard Louma, also raised eyebrows.
For three decades Australia has ignored the MSG and not sought membership, despite the organisation being the main political grouping of its near neighbours and Australia being a Melanesian country itself (via Torres Strait). This year, Australia finally decided to make approaches – clearly due to growing geopolitical competition – but it may be too late. Pacific envoy Ewen McDonald, as an invited guest, made a pitch for Australian membership, but the MSG communiqué included a suspension of all new membership applications for at least the next year. Meanwhile the MSG and China are discussing ways to deepen their security and development ties.
The MSG summit showed that Canberra, with its singular focus on Beijing’s moves in the Pacific, fails to see how Jakarta continues to step on its cake throughout the region. In recent decades, Australia’s silence on West Papuan atrocities and its failure to engage the MSG has allowed Indonesia to destabilise Melanesia and support its own friendly governments in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. Australia has long given Indonesia free reign and is now paying the price of its strategic incoherence: Indonesia and China working in lock step to see in a new Vanuatu government and to keep Australian interests on the back foot.
Ben Bohane is a Vanuatu-based photojournalist and television producer who has reported on the Pacific for more than 30 years.