23 January 2019
Scott Morrison’s three-day visit to Vanuatu and Fiji marked – surprisingly – the first time in history that an Australian prime minister has made a bilateral visit to either of these maritime neighbours.
Traditionally, Australia has been more focused on cultivating relations with powers that are greater than it, and has often neglected, or patronised, its smaller neighbours. But worries about China’s influence are shifting Canberra’s priorities.
Morrison’s visit was a welcome attempt to redress Australia’s Pacific neglect – and it was well received in both countries. But the discussions in Port Vila and Suva suffered from Canberra’s ongoing presumption that it can dictate the terms of its relationships with smaller partners.
Morrison’s first stop was Vanuatu, which has had a series of visits from high-level Western officials since reports surfaced last year that China was eyeing the possibility of a military base there. Both Vanuatu and China strongly denied the reports. But the claims, along with China’s growing aid and ties in the Pacific, prompted recent visits by two top US officials, including the navy’s undersecretary, Thomas Modly, who told the Vanuatu Daily Post in September: “We see them [the Chinese] very aggressively trying to expand their influence.”
Like every other country, Vanuatu has much to gain from developing close relations with China, but its affinities – based on history, culture and geography – tend to be with Canberra rather than Beijing. So, officials in Vanuatu, according to local reports, deeply and sincerely welcomed Morrison’s visit.
Yet Australia’s approach to specific concerns, such as easing travel restrictions for Vanuatu citizens or signing a bilateral security treaty, showed little understanding of Vanuatu’s interests or history. Morrison insisted he was pushing ahead with plans for a security treaty, despite opposition from Vanuatu officials who said such an agreement would be counter to Vanuatu’s longstanding membership of the Non-Aligned Movement.
According to Dan McGarry, the media director of the Vanuatu Daily Post, Australia could instead have sought to expand a multilateral treaty, such as the Disaster Response Pact, which includes New Zealand and France, a former colonial power there. Vanuatu, he said, needs to avoid being seen as choosing sides between China and Australia, even if “everybody knows where our hearts are”.
“The personal sympathy on the street is much more solidly pro-Australia than pro-China,” he told me. “But the proviso is that we don’t want anyone telling us what to do. When Canberra or Washington or Beijing try to get us to choose one over the other, it is not a place we want to go.”
Assessing Morrison’s visit, McGarry said: “The person-to-person contact had been missing. It was essential to advancing the dialogue between the two countries … When you get to the level of engagement, it was evident that there was a long way to go between the parties.”
In Fiji, the dynamic was similar.
Morrison’s visit marked an end to the strained relations that followed Frank Bainimarama’s coup in 2006. After the coup, Australia and New Zealand led international efforts to isolate Bainimarama, who then made a show of fostering closer ties with China and Russia. Bainimarama eventually held elections in 2014 and 2018, which he won, though his government has a dismal record on human rights.
Morrison’s visit meant that, as Bainimarama said, “we can put this behind us in the past, letting bygones be bygones”. The nations are now advancing their security ties.
Morrison visited Fiji’s Black Rock military camp, which will be used to train South Pacific police and soldiers. The development is being funded by Australia, which outbid China for the project.
The two leaders agreed to hold regular high-level meetings, and Morrison committed to boosting Australian television programming in the Pacific and to including Fiji in its Pacific Labour Scheme for rural areas.
But the visit hit stumbling blocks that again signalled Australia’s failure to respect, or listen to, its partners in the Pacific.
Ahead of Morrison’s visit, Australia’s Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton insisted that he could strip Islamic State extremist Neil Prakash of Australian citizenship because Prakash is also Fijian. Yet Dutton apparently did not check with Fiji, which has denied that Prakash is a Fijian national.
More significantly, despite Australia’s “step up” in the Pacific, its lack of action on climate change has angered its Pacific neighbours, which are among the nations that are most susceptible to rising seas and extreme weather events. Referring to Australia’s commitment to the coal industry – which Morrison continues to champion – Bainimarama said: “From where we are sitting, we cannot imagine how the interests of any single industry can be placed above the welfare of Pacific peoples and vulnerable people in the world over.” Morrison insisted Australia will meet its internationally agreed commitments to cut carbon emissions, though federal government data indicates it will not.
Still, Morrison deserves credit for this effort to advance Australia’s Pacific ties. The next task for Canberra will be to demonstrate understanding of the values and needs of its smaller neighbours. This will not only ensure they are accorded respect but also help to keep them onside as great power rivalries grow.