Andrew Napuat and Scott Morrison

Internal Affairs Minister Andrew Napuat takes PM Scott Morrison on a tour of the Australian-funded Police Training College in Port Vila.


Seems like a simple enough word, but based on what we heard this week, it’s got different meanings depending on where you’re from.

Last year, the Pacific Islands Forum defined security as everything that’s necessary for us to live in a peaceful, prosperous and safe environment. They agreed that the single greatest threat to this aspiration is climate change. This declaration was signed by every Forum member, including Australia and New Zealand.

Back in Canberra, security is ships and guns and 1941. A significant part of the strategic security crowd in Australia fears that China plans to create their own version of what Imperial Japan once called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

They want to pre-empt Chinese militarisation of the Pacific islands by militarising it first.

Calmer voices remind us that the Western Pacific is seen as a ‘strategic backwater’ by the Chinese. Senior US analysts have told the Daily Post that the East and South China Seas are their primary focus.

Everyone recognises that all bets would be off in a hot confrontation between powers, but estimates about the likelihood of that vary wildly.

For politicians in Vanuatu and throughout the region, security is seen as mostly an internal matter. Law and order, border and natural resource protection, fighting financial crime… this is what security means to them.

These definitions overlap, but only partially.

Australia shares Vanuatu’s concerns about law and order, justice, cybercrime, transnational finance and several other key domestic issues. These are things that can affect a country’s ability to govern itself, and to withstand external pressures. Scott Morrison and many a PM before him have recognised this. They’ve already invested millions in this, and millions more are in the pipeline.

Vanuatu will soon get a new territorial patrol boat, with state of the art communications systems capable of interacting in real time with an Australian-funded (and US-staffed) aerial surveillance plane. Australian naval staff are supporting the effort on the ground.

The Australian Attorney General’s office has backstopped an international effort to bring our cybercrime laws and policies in line with the Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention. (Daily Post staff have participated in this effort.)

The Australian Federal Police have been a constant presence for years in the transnational crime unit and more recently have been putting in some very hard yards in building up the capacity of the family protection unit. Security means nothing if half the population doesn’t experience it.

Recently, Australia signed up to help Vanuatu put together a national security task force, to put a little more shape on what can sometimes seem a many-tentacled beast.

Scott Morrison just toured a recently completed upgrade to our Police College, part of a strategic effort to increase our police force by nearly a third in just three years.

If he wanted a security win on Wednesday, it was there for the taking. His country has spent tens of millions making lives better in Vanuatu and making our cross-border interactions more transparent.

Instead, he chose to talk past those accomplishments, and dwell on a kind of security that may fit Australia’s needs, but doesn’t fit ours.

Australia wants us in a bilateral security deal like the August 2017 treaty they signed with Solomon Islands. According to DFAT, the agreement allows “Australian police, defence and associated civilian personnel to deploy rapidly to Solomon Islands if the need arises and where both countries consent.”

So: No bases, no boots on the ground, but the ability to get them there within days if necessary.

It may seem a moderate request in Canberra, but in Port Vila, people don’t see it that way.

No one should doubt for a second that if Vanuatu had to choose between Australian and Chinese uniforms on the streets of Luganville and Port Vila, it would choose Australia 100 times out of 100.

But any move to distance ourselves from China right now could raise the ire of an increasingly petulant and arbitrary power. A defence pact with Australia would do very little to mitigate the potential diplomatic and financial consequences.

And Vanuatu’s Non-Aligned, demilitarised status is a deeply held conviction that extends to the grassroots level.

Ni Vanuatu don’t want to see any foreigners in combat kit here under any circumstances. This Republic is barely 40 years old. A large chunk of the population remembers being disenfranchised and stateless in their own land.

The distrust of outsiders endures. In 2002, Deputy Prime Minister Serge Vohor told SBS Dateline that Australia had been “spying on local politicians and tapping telephones”, according to a contemporary political review. More recent reports from New Zealand media indicate that Pacific islands nations are still considered fair game to the Five Eyes.

The question for Pacific islanders is not who might be spying on us, but who isn’t. ‘My way or the Huawei’ isn’t a compelling slogan here.

Trust takes time, persistent effort, and patience. The more Australians know about us, and the more we know about Australia, the better. The Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme have already introduced thousands of Ni Vanuatu to daily life in the Land Down Under. Opening the doors even wider could make Australia as familiar and friendly a neighbour as the USA is to Canada.

Closing them might make us feel more like Mexico.

Trust takes commitment. Scott Morrison’s statements on climate change in Fiji yesterday were much more conciliatory than those he made here on Wednesday. If that softer language turns out to be a case of telling Voreqe Bainimarama what he wants to hear, trust may be that much harder to build.

As Mr Bainimarama said yesterday, “Climate change is no laughing matter.” You can’t burn down our house and then expect us to be grateful when you chip in to buy a tent.

Scott Morrison is entitled to pursue a bilateral security treaty if that’s all he really wants. But agreements require understanding and common ground. He may define security differently from his Pacific neighbours, but he has to try at least to understand how others use the word.

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