MACK WILLIAMS. Vanuatu : Chinese Cargo Cult ?

Apr 14, 2018

Fairfax Media’s awakened interest in the South Pacific would have been only too welcome if it had not been sparked by a leak from the all too familiar ‘senior defence sources’ in Canberra and Washington which so distorted the scene.  

Apart from the speculative story suggesting an imminent agreement between Beijing and Port Vila to allow China to establish a “military base” in Vanuatu most of the reporting of Chinese activity in Vanuatu had been on the public record ( and recognised as background to the DFAT White Paper). The prominence which the reporting achieved and the “reds under the beds” impact it had on the Australian public needs to be assessed against the facts – as also do the reasons for the inspired leak . Michael O’Keeffe’s recent comprehensive article in The Correspondent has provided an excellent basis.

First, the facts :

. The denials by the Vanuatu Government (and China) have been swift and strong. Though Fairfax largely ignored them for some days and then only slipped them in as a tail of a headline today! Had Fairfax not sought an official response before publishing? While one does not have to accept automatically any Vanuatu response ( and that of China) Fairfax should have been more professional in seeking their views earlier.

.While Fairfax included anecdotal reporting of a few Ni Vanuatu views about increased Chinese activity there has been no sign of comment from the Vanuatu Government or tourism industry leaders about the need for port and airport infrastructure for that industry which is so vital to their economy.

. Nor for the need for the frequent national disasters the country has suffered in recent years and for which , all too often, the outside response from Australia and elsewhere has experienced considerable difficulty in assisting in recovery.

Second, the context :

. Talk of a proposed Chinese military base in Vanuatu has been represented by some as a major first step towards militarisation of the South Pacific – about which both Australian major political parties have long been concerned. An objective shared by Vanuatu for so long and the reason it has been an active member of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) – as its leaders have once again reiterated.

. One wonders how Canberra sought to explain to Vanuatu last year’s huge joint military exercise ( involving tens to thousands of troops) at sea, in the air and on land around Rockhampton – the geographically closest part of Australia to Vanuatu ( only 1800 kms). And especially the idea floated by US generals at the time of a US:Australian Joint Expeditionary Force to be deployed rapidly to put down what (?) and where (?) in our region – presumably including the South Pacific. Was this not “militarisation” at least in the eyes of others in our region?

. Fairfax also reported that a group from the US Coast Guard only recently had inspected the wharf facilities in Espiritu Santu – and presumably other ports in Vanuatu. This was a regular occurrence but this time ever so subtly a group of US Marines had been added ! Up to date knowledge of wharf conditions and supply centres is a normal fare for defence intelligence agencies and has been for many years. In today’s world of satellite imagery, RAN ship visits and even cruise ship visits also provide much of this material.

Third , how did we get to this stage?

. Much of the commentary about the Fairfax reporting has focussed on statistics showing how Chinese aid to Vanuatu and the South Pacific more generally has grown so quickly – and Australia’s leadership in this area is being eroded. Again nothing much new here on what is a subject of much wider complexity but to note :

. the challenge for Australia has not only been aid numbers

. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has argued consistently that we should be focussing on working together with China rather than competing in this sensitive area

.Sadly we have allowed the South Pacific to be downgraded in our national priorities through a number of key areas ;

. climate change – where our policies are seen by South Pacific countries as failing their very survival needs

.immigration – seasonal work etc

. closure of Radio Australia’s Pacific Service and the pathetic print media coverage

Fifth , the Chinese :

.In one of its more useful sections the Fairfax reporting explained that the Chinese are not new to Vanuatu or the rest of the South Pacific having provided for so long the “trade store” spine of much of their economies. The early Chinese learned to meld into the local society as this was vital for their sustainability. The scene described by Fairfax is replicated in most of the countries in the region. As the “money men” in their local communities they usually played a key political role behind their Chinese screens. Necessarily that meant that while they were respected they often were not liked.

. The contrast with the new Chinese arrivals is also far from unique – and here not only in the South Pacific but also in countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. The “new” Chinese around the world all too often display much of the “Ugly American” syndrome of yesteryears. This inevitably comes with the territory they occupy and their ignorance of how to deal successfully with locals in non-vassal countries.

It is tempting to cast back to the WW!! and post war years in what was then New Hebrides when hundreds of thousands of US troops were based there. The John Frum cargo cult movement which started on the island of Tanna blossomed at that time on the conviction that the US was coming to save them all and deliver the good life. It gained momentum after the war when huge amounts of military vehicles and equipment ( which Frum claimed were the forerunner of the new US invasion) were dumped at sea – particularly off Espiritu Santu. Frum supporters cleared land for airstrips all over to receive the US cargo. Although Fairfax missed the link there are certainly shades of cargo cult in the new Chinese wave into Vanuatu !!

The Fairfax reporting has served a valuable purpose in focussing more Australian attention to the South Pacific. But there is no simple panacea for Australia’s reasonable concerns about China in the region other than a long hard slog of much more attention to the region’s needs and aspirations. So why the leak ? Judged by both the responses of Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop it would not seem to be consistent with the policy they are promoting on the issue. Is it being too conspiratorial to see the leak as designed by those in Canberra wishing to frustrate the current government policy and force Australia into a more directly confrontational line with China ? In accordance with the new US Strategic Review objectives?

Mack Williams, Former Australian Ambassador to the Philippines and South Korea. Royal College of Defence Studies

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