Politics

Vanuatu digs in on Chinese presence — Foreign Minister says it’s “great”

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Vanuatu Foreign Minister, Ralph Regenvanu (Image supplied)

The Vanuatu Foreign Minister, Ralph Regenvanu, has welcomed the intensified Chinese investment and aid efforts in his country while conceding it does come with some extra diplomatic pressure. In an extended interview with Independent Australia’s Lee Duffield at his Foreign Ministry office, Mr Regenvanu took stock of incidents upsetting the Australian Government and many Australians, like the story of China wanting a naval base in Vanuatu, which his government has denied.

MAKING AUSTRALIA MORE INTERESTED

He called it the military base story that blew up — a media story”.

“It has been good for us. The blow-up has made Australia much more interested. They have committed to build the police college for us. They have committed to picking up the national security standard [A$500 million for cyber security, pointedly meant to block off “outside” intrusions]. They have talked about being much more interested in improving work strategies. They have been talking about improving infrastructure. So, great.”

GETTING “FORCEFUL”

Not only that, but Australia compares to disadvantage on some main points in dealing with the neighbouring Pacific Islands Republic, 2,200 kilometres to the east.

“China is a great partner, I think far more respectful of us as government-to-government diplomatic representatives than Australia. They don’t presume like Australia. They can be just as forceful, but Australia has got the gold medal for that one.”

The minister gives his main objective in foreign affairs as answering his country’s need for economic development, which accounts for his emphasis on economic assistance and investment.

HEAVY AID AND INVESTMENT FROM CHINA

He has assessed the boom in investment from China as another positive factor.

“In terms of private sector commercial projects, the Chinese are now getting to the level of what Australia’s has been. When things come up for sale the Chinese will have more money than the French or anyone else and that is a feature of their domestic economy at this time.”

Discussing extra-assertive Chinese government attitudes and tactics, like controls on media, hyper-sensitivity to criticism, strong-arm tactics against international partners, like cyber attacks, hounding and controlling Chinese citizens abroad, along with reports of pressure on the Vanuatu Government to deport individuals it dislikes, he said he had encountered some cases but had not handled those directly.

DEMANDS FOR DEPORTATIONS

In cases they have come to see us about, they are Chinese citizens and I am aware there is a woman here they want deported... and I have basically said well they can only get a court order. There is another guy and he’s left the country. There was a third guy, they wanted to deport him back to China. We asked them to provide their criminal convictions and records from the police file, to hand him over under the normal extradition procedures. I’m not sure what happened. I was Acting PM at the time and called a meeting on what needed to be done.

To a question about the Falun Gong organisation, or ethnic minorities in conflict with the Beijing Government and demands that they be shut down or excluded:

“I don’t think we have ever had the occasion to do that, but I think if one of those organisations wanted to come we would not let them come in. That is the level of the pressure from China; we would not want to go there, kind of thing… but we would not stop the Dalai Lama.”

GOODWILL AND SUPPORT FOR CHINA

As Ralph Regenvanu was speaking, the Prime Minister, Charlot Salwai, was down at the Port Vila harbour on board the visiting Chinese hospital ship, Peace Ark, on its current goodwill mission.

He likewise appeared oblivious to concerns about Australia getting displaced in the South Pacific, pledging diplomatic support for some key Chinese priorities.

In a response to local reporters:

“Vanuatu wishes to reaffirm its stand for the One China policy. It regards China as a best friend and reliable partner in development.”

The Peace Ark, carrying 57 doctors and over 80 other medical staff, is providing free medical treatment to 5,000 people — one tenth of the small capital city population.

It is part of a Chinese naval project delivering humanitarian support in 37 countries, a contributor to China’s “soft diplomacy”, establishing friendship and credibility.

Hospital ship Peace Ark (Image supplied)

Front page article on Peace Ark, Vanuatu Daily Post (Image supplied)

REBUILDING A CAPITAL

Chinese engineers and workers have put up a chain of prestige buildings in Vanuatu, starting with the Foreign Ministry building itself and also the new national stadium, a large convention centre, a headquarters building for the regional agency the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), port facilities for the island of Espiritu Santo and a brand new compound for the Prime Minister’s department.

(Not being outdone, Australia has done a popular rebuild of the portside walkway in Port Vila and, through the Asian Development Bank, modernising roadworks and drainage in the inner-city area — a slow project holding up traffic, but strategic for the future.)

A gift from China - a metal gateway to brand new Prime Minister’s building (Image supplied)

The revamped harbour walkway, courtesy of Australia (Image supplied)

CRITICISMS

There are criticisms.

The convention centre looks like it will be too costly to run and the new port meets specifications for Chinese warships, but not large cruise ships, now said to be getting diverted somewhere else.

Less appealing still to patriotic Ni-Vanuatu citizens is a gated waterside estate being built by Chinese investors for Chinese clients on a large slice of a former 990 hectare coconut plantation. It’s expected to include houses and units, hotels, a casino and clubs, for residents and for travellers from Beijing.

Its construction is currently held up because the Vanuatu Government says it is legally bound to refuse permission for a stand-alone Chinese power station on the site.

The unfinished and unsightly entry to the projected Chinese gated compound (Image supplied)

BACKGROUND TO A FRIENDSHIP

Another perspective on the “China question” comes from an elder figure in Vanuatu, Selwyn Leodoro, a relative of the founding Prime Minister, Father Walter Lini, and currently the Secretary of the country’s influential Anglican Church.

He said this week, close relations between Vanuatu and China were no new thing:

We want and need the development. Somebody comes and then comes with how to do it and we are then not so sure — but we still want it. Maybe the Chinese have a 50-year plan, but it is uncertain.

During our struggle for independence achieved in 1980, China helped us right from the beginning. Out of five U.N. Security Council members, China was there — the only one in 1978 that promoted our cause. Others came in later.

More pressure and trouble can be expected.

In the pipeline

Projections by the Vanuatu Daily Post newspaper indicate that the sale of Vanuatu passports through agents is on track to build up well beyond expectations this year, to nearly A$93.5 million, pushing up towards one quarter of national revenue.

The passports, which carry visa-free entry into the European Union and then clearance to roam around inside its territory are reputedly selling for A$155,000 or more, with main takers being in China.

The EU might have something to say on that; it is, in the meantime, material for a potential scandal.

Selwyn Leodoro (Image supplied)

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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