Leadership change creates new opportunities for Vanuatu–Australia security relationship
8 Sep 2023|

On Monday, Sato Kilman was voted in as prime minister of Vanuatu for the fifth time, after the country’s Supreme Court upheld a vote of no confidence against former PM Ishmael Kalsakau. Having been in this position before, Kilman wasted no time in outlining the new government’s vision, with effective foreign policy being identified as a priority.

In an interview with the ABC’s Pacific Beat, Kilman said that he wants to ‘revisit’ the security pact with Australia that was signed by his predecessor. Kilman said that Vanuatu’s parliament would be unlikely to ratify the agreement in its current form and that he felt Kalsakau hadn’t consulted adequately with the council of ministers prior to signing it.

The revelation that the security agreement wouldn’t get ratified won’t have come as a shock to Australia. Potential challenges have been evident for months. In May, then opposition leader, now deputy prime minister, Bob Loughman claimed the agreement undermined the country’s independence and listed its signing as one of the many reasons to remove Kalsakau from power.

Vanuatu is also not the only country in the Pacific that wants to take more time to review its security partnership with Australia. On 1 June, Prime Minister James Marape announced that Papua New Guinea wasn’t ready to sign the bilateral security treaty it has been working on with Australia, citing concerns that the wording encroached on PNG’s sovereignty.

My ASPI colleague Lucy Albiston and I have previously noted the importance of building and nurturing Pacific treaties with care. Kilman’s upfront admission that he was ‘not sure’ whether the pact was ‘in the best interests of Vanuatu’ shouldn’t be considered narrowly as an unrecoverable setback in Australia’s security relations with the country. It’s an opportunity to do better.

Although negotiations for the security agreement with Vanuatu began in 2018, not enough was done to explain the agreement’s benefits to both the Vanuatu government and the nation’s people. Vanuatu has a free media that is eager to understand more about security and geopolitics in the region and would relish the opportunity to report more information on the true benefits that come from agreements like this.

It’s also an opportunity for Australia to demonstrate how a stronger formalised bilateral security agreement can help Vanuatu meet its identified security needs. Australia’s support to Vanuatu in developing its national security strategy was welcomed, and the proposed agreement aimed to address a number of priorities, particularly in humanitarian aid and disaster relief, cybersecurity, maritime security and policing.

Kilman has reiterated that community policing in remote areas is a priority for the government. A new Vanuatu Police Force structure was launched at the beginning of this month that caters for substantial growth in the force to over 1,500 members and aims to ensure that every island has a police outpost. This is a great new starting point for Australia to be highlighting the value of its assistance and how Vanuatu’s ambitions can be better supported through a refined security agreement.

Australia has demonstrated that it wants to find a way to better support its Pacific partners. In July, when Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, fresh from a trip to Beijing, announced his intent to establish a military in his country, Canberra was quick to respond. Defence Minister Richard Marles stated that, while this was a sovereign decision for Solomon Islands, Australia would be ‘very keen’ to provide support if asked. Marles also acknowledged that ‘Vanuatu is also thinking about moving down this path as well’.

Although progression towards militarisation has likely slowed or temporarily halted in Vanuatu with a change in government, if the topic is raised again, Australia should echo and improve upon the response given to Honiara.

If Vanuatu were to decide to establish a military—most likely by separating the Vanuatu Mobile Force and Police Maritime Wing from the Vanuatu Police Force—it would require significant legislative and ministerial changes. In the years that it would take to effect the separation, there would undoubtedly be political challenges against the ruling party that threatened to reverse the decisions. That is simply part of Pacific democracy.

Australia must not be daunted by Vanuatu exercising its democracy and right to sovereign decision-making. In fact, such actions must be encouraged. Decisions should not be made by a single leader; they should be made by elected governments that reflect the will of the people, and when those governments change, so too can the needs. Australia must be ready to go back to negotiations, to share experiences and stories with the people of Vanuatu, and to work together to find the best partnership for our two countries.

If this is done correctly and time is taken to engage all components of Vanuatu’s government, as well as key cultural leadership groups such as the Malvatumauri council of chiefs, churches and women’s councils, it’s more likely an agreement will be reached that lasts longer than any one leader.

Taking the time to do things right is one of the many things that sets Australia apart from other countries, such as China, that are seeking to build partnerships in the region. Last year, Vanuatu was one of 10 Pacific island countries included in Beijing’s proposed regional security agreement, which immediately fell flat because Pacific leaders had not been properly consulted. While Australia’s approach is miles ahead, there’s always room for improvement.

As Australia continues to engage with Vanuatu on the security proposal, and any other matters of importance between our two countries, it must resist the urge to view decisions only through the lens of geostrategic competition. Kilman was right to rebut claims that he was leading a ‘pro-China’ bloc against a ‘pro-West’ Kalsakau government. Such labels, often created from viewing isolated incidents, are useless if Australia wants to better understand the priorities and objectives of its partners.

In reality, Vanuatu’s government is pro-Vanuatu and is proud of its non-aligned status. Kalsakau welcomed Chinese police experts into the country in August and received policing supplies, including uniforms and handcuffs. He wasn’t picking sides. He was accepting support for the betterment of his nation’s security forces.

Being asked to renegotiate the security agreement does not mean Australia is losing ground in the region. But it is a call to do better. Australia now has an opportunity to approach the issue of security with a broader lens that includes more groups in Vanuatu through greater transparency and engagement.