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Vanuatu signs security agreement with Australia, says no talks with China

UPDATED AT 1:33 AM ET ON 12-13-2022

Vanuatu signed a broad security agreement with Australia on Tuesday and said it hasn’t discussed a similar arrangement or any security issues with China.

The pact, signed in Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila, covers an extensive range of areas for cooperation, from disaster relief to policing, defense and cyber security. 

“As nations committed to democracy, accountability and transparency, the agreement will be publicly available,” Australia’s government said in a statement. 

The text of a China-Solomon Islands security pact signed in April, which alarmed Australia and the United States, has not been released by either government. 

China has been a significant infrastructure investor in Vanuatu, building roads, sports arenas and its parliament buildings as part of its broader push for influence in the Pacific. Private Chinese investment in Vanuatu has also flourished. 

Analysts have said Vanuatu is one of several Pacific island nations that Beijing might see as a candidate for allowing a Chinese military presence. China may want greater capacity to evacuate or protect its nationals in the region during political instability or natural disasters, but could also be seeking a counter to the Australia-U.S. alliance in the Pacific.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong and other senior ministers are visiting Vanuatu, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia this week. 

The foreign affairs spokesman for Australia’s opposition is also traveling with Wong, signaling a bipartisan commitment to bolstering relations with Pacific island nations. Australia is the largest aid donor to Vanuatu.

At a joint press conference on Monday in Port Vila, Vanuatu’s new foreign minister Jotham Napat said there had been no security talks with China. 

“We have not established any security agreement [with China]. We have not even discussed any matter in relation to security,” he said, according to a transcript released by the Australian government.

Other areas covered by the Vanuatu-Australia agreement include border, maritime, aviation and resource security.

Chinese police have become a visible presence in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara since the security pact was signed. China has provided training and equipment such as water cannon and vehicles to the Pacific country’s police force.

Australian soldiers and police also are stationed in Honiara at the request of the Solomon Islands government following anti-China and anti-government rioting in November last year. Australia last month gifted high-powered rifles to the Solomon Islands police.

Wong attended the official handover ceremony Tuesday in Vanuatu for a new police wharf and the police boat RVS Mataweli. 

She has characterized the assistance as “part of Australia’s enduring cooperation on shared regional security interests.” 

Napat, who became foreign minister after Vanuatu’s elections in October, said the visit had taken the Vanuatu-Australia relationship to a “another level” and indicated he and other officials could visit Australia next year.

Vanuatu, home to about 300,000 people spread across dozens of islands, has been known for fractious politics and weak short-lived governments since independence from joint French and British rule in 1980.

Napat said the top security challenge for Vanuatu is climate change and its consequences such as rising sea levels and an increase in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones.

Napat also said Vanuatu hopes to tap an Australian infrastructure financing facility “in the not-too-distant future.” 

This story has been updated to include the signing of the Vanuatu-Australia security agreement.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.

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