Australia tries to counter China’s influence in Pacific Islands, will negotiate security treaty with Vanuatu

Maritime surveillance, police and defence cooperation would underpin the security treaty,

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 1:21pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 10:24pm

Australia said on Monday it would negotiate a security treaty with Vanuatu, weeks after the Australian prime minister warned China against building a military base on the South Pacific island nation.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the negotiations during a visit to Australia’s Parliament House by Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas.

“We agreed to commence negotiations on a bilateral security treaty on common security interests, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster response, maritime surveillance and border security, police and defence cooperation,” Turnbull said in a statement.

Turnbull said he and Salwai had reinforced their commitment to a deep and enduring economic and security partnership.

A Vanuatu government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

“It’s less about the goodies being announced and more about the visits actually taking place and the symbolism of that,” said Jonathan Pryke, a Pacific Islands foreign policy expert with the Lowy Institute, a think-tank based in Sydney.

“The message it’s sending is that we respect you, take you seriously as a peer, rather than the more traditional donor-recipient relationship.”

In May, China and Vanuatu denied media reports that the Chinese had approached the former joint British-French colony, population 280,000, about building a permanent military presence in the South Pacific.

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Turnbull said at the time Australia “would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbours of ours.”

New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern said her country takes “a strong position in the Pacific against militarisation”.

Vanuatu’s Infrastructure Minister Jotham Napat said last week that Salwai would use his Australian visit to ask Turnbull for help to pay for a high-speed telecommunications cable from Sydney to Vanuatu.

Australia hikes aid to win hearts and minds in Pacific as China’s influence grows

The request follows the Australian government announcement last week that it would pay most of the A$137 million (US$101 million) price tag for such an undersea cable to South Pacific neighbours Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

Australia stepped into that project after the Solomons government signed a contract with the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in 2017 to build a cable to the Sydney broadband hub. The Solomons consequently scrapped the Huawei deal.

Huawei has been flagged by US intelligence officials as a national security threat because of its links to the Chinese Communist Party.

Australia has barred Huawei on security grounds from bidding for contracts in a national broadband network which is currently being rolled out Australia-wide.

Additional reporting by Reuters