Politics in the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, located east of Australia, can be turbulent, with constant chessboard moves among parliamentary members with fluid party ties and frequent no confidence motions. But the strategic importance of the country to the U.S.-Australia alliance and China was a factor in the recent abrupt expulsion of the 10-month-old government led by then-Prime Minister Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau.
In late August, Kalsakau lost a vote of no confidence against him by opposition leader Bob Loughman, who has for years backed China’s increasing influence in the Pacific nation. After disputes about the vote result, Loughman was appointed deputy prime minister in the new government under Prime Minister Sato Kilman, who took the helm on September 4. The sudden change in administration came a year after Loughman, a former prime minister, ceded his leadership after parliament was dissolved and he avoided a vote of no confidence against himself. The snap election which followed in October last year saw Kalsakau take the top job.
While the government is contending with domestic issues, such as a struggling economy, unemployment and contentious debates about the minimum wage, the main trigger for the latest political crisis was a security agreement with Australia signed by Kalsakau in December last year and due for parliamentary ratification. Vanuatu is one of many Pacific Island states that do not have their own armed forces and depend on military assistance from bilateral partners when needed.
For Loughman, the unratified bilateral pact, which would increase military and law enforcement, but also disaster and humanitarian relief and cybersecurity co-operation with Australia, could have risked Vanuatu’s relations with China. New Prime Minister Kilman claimed there had been a lack of consultation about the pact with ministers. Yet it was not an unknown or hasty development. Discussions about the agreement had been occurring between Australia and successive governments in Vanuatu for five years.
“Australia respects Vanuatu’s sovereign decision-making processes, including in relation to the bilateral security agreement that began in 2018 and was signed in 2022,” Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs responded. The signing of the pact followed deep concerns by the U.S. and its allies about China’s security agreement with the Solomon Islands that was announced last April.
Soon after taking office, Kilman vehemently denied any geopolitical reasons for the crisis, claiming that the country had always and will continue to be “neutral” in big power contests. “We are not pro-West and we are not pro-Chinese,” he said. “We adopt a non-aligned policy.” Indeed, Vanuatu has a spectrum of development and aid relations with Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan, and its mobile paramilitary police force has also received support from Australia, New Zealand and China.
Yet, in being non-aligned, Vanuatu was swift in 2016 to declare its support for China’s territorial claim to islands in the South China Sea that are at the center of a heated sovereignty dispute and military provocation between the East Asian powerhouse and several of its Southeast Asian neighbors. And, for U.S. commentators, a high-risk site for potential conflict.
Despite the Pacific nation remaining outside of any direct military involvement in U.S.-China geopolitics, it has, under some political leaders, become increasingly receptive to China’s political influence. Last year, Loughman signed an array of agreements with China on technology, energy, infrastructure, health and economic development and, the year before, a multi-million dollar bilateral grant agreement on economic and technical cooperation.
In 2018, Chinese funding and construction of a massive port development in the provincial, but geographically strategic, coastal town of Luganville, attracted international attention. Security experts speculated that, due to its exceptional size, it could potentially be used as a warship base.
In contrast, Kalsakau has been publicly critical of China’s penetration of Vanuatu’s political life for several years. In 2018, he told the Australian media there wasn’t enough internal scrutiny of the massive inflow of Chinese loans, businesses and influence and “he feared China was pursuing its strategic interests by showering Vanuatu with largesse and deepening its influence in the country.”
Last year, Vanuatu’s public debt totalled 40 percent of GDP. China, its largest foreign creditor, is owed more than one third of its total external debt, which totals about $314 million and constitutes 32 percent of GDP.
French President Emmanuel Macron expressed additional concerns during a visit to Vanuatu in July. “There is in the Indo-Pacific, and particularly in Oceania, new imperialism appearing and a power logic that is threatening the sovereignty of several states; the smallest, often the most fragile,”Macron said.
Vanuatu, like many Pacific Island states, is a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy. But its statecraft is heavily influenced by norms of Melanesian customary governance that have prevailed for centuries. The power of traditional clan leaders in island societies is determined by their ability to acquire and distribute wealth and resources to their constituencies, rather than adherence to an ideology or party-driven policies. While political cultures in the Pacific are evolving, this legacy makes politicians particularly vulnerable to China’s strategies of economic largesse and coercion which entails reciprocity.
During his recent tenure as prime minister, Kalsakau attempted to broaden his country’s international relations, bringing in other development partners, such as Saudi Arabia, and working for wide-ranging global support of its legal probe of climate justice at the UN General Assembly. He also took steps to reform Vanuatu’s controversial citizenship-selling program in response to security concerns by the EU which has had a visa waiver arrangement with the nation.
There is no doubt that Pacific Island leaders are opposed to being parties in the regional U.S.-China rivalry and are reasserting their rights of sovereignty above all else. At a meeting in August of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, an inter-governmental organization of southwest Pacific Island states, leaders emphasized their refusal to take sides in geopolitical battles.
But regional analysts also point to Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Samoa being located on a key geographical axis, which is crucial to maritime access into and across the Pacific Ocean by the U.S., Australia and China.
Yet, despite the political upheaval, the new prime minister has not dismissed closer security ties with Australia; only that the pending agreement won’t be ratified in its current form. “My view would be to revisit the agreement with both sides, the Australians and the Vanuatu government, and see if there’s any sticking points and then address that,” Kilman was quoted on September 4.
Some Australian strategists support Vanuatu’s greater scrutiny of the pact, claiming that it is a sign of democratic processes at work. But, in terms of a timeline, it is unlikely to be an immediate priority for the new leadership.
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
Dear RS readers: It has been an extraordinary year and our editing team has been working overtime to make sure that we are covering the current conflicts with quality, fresh analysis that doesn’t cleave to the mainstream orthodoxy or take official Washington and the commentariat at face value. Our staff reporters, experts, and outside writers offer top-notch, independent work, daily. Please consider making a tax-exempt, year-end contribution to Responsible Statecraft so that we can continue this quality coverage — which you will find nowhere else — into 2024. Happy Holidays!
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?