Jenny Hayward-Jones, Lowy Institute’s Nonresident Fellow and former Director of the Melanesia Program, who used to be an Australian diplomat in Vanuatu, in this exclusive interview for Vila Times talks about challenges for the Pacific in the “Asian century,” her experience of diplomatic work in Vanuatu, competition with China and Western presence in the Pacific.
‘One of the most positive changes was the jailing of 14 MPs for bribery and corruption in 2015. This was a very important development in Vanuatu’
– You had been working in Vanuatu as an Australian diplomat in 1998-2001. How was it here back then? Is there a significant improvement now compared to what Vanuatu was back then?
I loved my time in Vanuatu 20 years ago. Much has changed, at least in Port Vila, which I have visited a few times in the last few years. There is a larger tourism infrastructure and also a larger population in the capital. The national economy now grows on an annual basis. When I started my job in Vanuatu, the economy had stagnated and the country was in the midst of the Comprehensive Reform Program (CRP) – a program designed by the Asian Development Bank and funded by an ADB loan and aid funding from Australia, New Zealand and other donors. The CRP completely dominated government business – and diplomatic business.
There is a French expression, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” which I think is the most apt description of politics in Vanuatu. One of the most positive changes though, was the jailing of 14 MPs for bribery and corruption in 2015. This was a very important development in Vanuatu. It’s also been great to see Vanuatu, with a very small diplomatic service, show impressive international leadership, particularly on climate change initiatives.
I used to work closely with Ralph Regenvanu when he was a young and extremely competent Head of the Cultural Centre. Now he is doing a brilliant job as Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister.
‘One of my most memorable moments during my time in Vanuatu was attending the funeral of Father Walter Lini’
– Tell me about your experience of diplomatic work in Vanuatu? Stories, memorable moments, the most interesting experiences maybe.
Port Vila was my first diplomatic posting and I hold very fond memories of my time there, not the least because I met my husband there. Port Vila had a small diplomatic community when I was there (and still does) and the Australian High Commission tended to dominate that community. Australia’s aid program was by far the largest of all the foreign aid programs and was present in nearly every sector in Vanuatu, meaning the Australian High Commission was blamed for everything that went wrong and also asked to help fix almost every problem. My small role in this large aid picture was managing the High Commission’s Direct Aid Program, which was a great way of supporting rural communities and particularly rural women.
One of my most memorable moments during my time in Vanuatu was attending the funeral of Father Walter Lini. Vanuatu’s founding father was a hero for me before I came to Port Vila and I was fortunate to meet him a few times when he was Deputy Prime Minister to Prime Minister Donald Kalpokas. I had the feeling at his funeral that the nation was losing part of its soul.
The most interesting part of my job was political reporting. I spent a lot of time up at Parliament watching motions of no confidence overturn several governments and a lot of time at Vila’s lovely old Court House listening to Chief Justice Vincent Lunabeck rule on legal challenges from Members of Parliament who felt they had been wronged. I got to know Vanuatu’s Constitution and Parliamentary Standing Orders really well.
One of the more amusing incidences in my time following Vanuatu’s politics was after a ruling by the Chief Justice in March 2001 that Parliament had to reconvene to hear a motion of no confidence in Prime Minister Barak Sope. I arrived at Parliament to witness the Speaker of Parliament Paul Telukluk, who was in no mood to obey the Chief justice, drive away from the Parliamentary complex at high speed. The Opposition MPs arrived but were unable to enter the Chamber to vote on the motion. When I enquired of Parliamentary Staff why they had not unlocked the Chamber, they told me the Speaker had taken the only key they had. They informed me the Chinese builders of the Parliamentary Complex had handed over two keys – which could not be copied in Vanuatu – and one had since been lost. Only in Vanuatu!
‘Growing influence of China in the Pacific Islands poses opportunities and challenges’
– Strategic and economic challenges facing Pacific Islands in the “Asian century,” the way it is formulated on Lowy Institute’s web-site. What are they? What would be the main effect of the “Asian century” at the future development of the Pacific?
The rise of China is undoubtedly the biggest story of the so-called Asian century. The growing influence of China in the Pacific Islands poses opportunities and challenges. The population of Pacific countries stand to benefit from better infrastructure enabled by Chinese assistance, more jobs generated by trade and investment and education opportunities. But there are challenges in ensuring local communities benefit from Chinese aid and investment and that Chinese companies do not cause damage to local environments or displace local businesses.
The Pacific faces a multitude of development challenges. The most significant of these, far outweighing the perceived strategic challenge posed by China’s rise, is climate change. On its own, climate change is an existential threat for many island nations and is destroying livelihoods in others but the increasing incidence of severe natural disasters has created havoc in the region, with Vanuatu’s population particularly badly affected. There is of course no means of averting disasters like cyclones, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions but there is still more than can be done to enable more effective recovery efforts.
‘There is no official requirement for Australians to be hired in Australian aid projects in the Pacific’
– Australian officials are always saying that Chinese “aid” in the Pacific is not helping the region as much as Western aid and can’t be even called “aid” being in fact concessional loans. But at the same time with Australian programs we see that large portions of the declared “aid” budgets are actually spent on salaries and other forms of payments for Australian managers and professionals hired for pretty much all the main positions.
When we talk about Australian-funded “aid” projects in the Pacific, normally there is an official requirement to hire exclusively Australians for all the major well-paid positions or it is just an “unwritten rule”?
There is no official requirement for Australians to be hired in Australian aid projects in the Pacific. Australian consultants, by virtue of their experience in the region, often have a background in public service and their knowledge of the Australian aid program, tend to have a natural advantage in the recruitment phase. It would be good to see many more Pacific Island nationals working on Australian aid projects and hopefully that is becoming more common now.
‘China has funded its fair share of white elephants in the region but it has also supported priority national infrastructure and valuable health and education initiatives’
– What are your thoughts on the aid in the Pacific and China being accused in building the “white elephants”?
Foreign aid is critical for many Pacific Island countries, including for Vanuatu and has become an important means of exercising diplomatic influence in the region. I think it’s a shame that the increase in Chinese aid over the last decade has led to expectations that delivering aid should be a competition – that discussion about Australian and New Zealand governments increasing their own aid spending in the region is focused on “competing” with China rather than on encouraging more cooperation.
It is certainly true that China has funded its fair share of white elephants in the region but it has also supported priority national infrastructure and valuable health and education initiatives. China’s concessional loan may not be the best means of delivering infrastructure to small island nations but they have been a means to an end.
Pacific Island governments are right to be seeking whatever help they can from China. At the moment, they are able to leverage Chinese aid to seek more commitments from Australia and New Zealand. But island governments also have another opportunity – to persuade their traditional donors, China and other emerging donors to work in cooperation with them and with each other on national development priorities. Australia and China may not share democratic values but this should not obstruct cooperation on projects in national infrastructure, health or education. Such cooperation is not unheard of in the region and could help deliver better outcomes for Vanuatu and its neighbours.
‘Australian focus on improving governance in the Pacific has worked on a presumption that Pacific Island institutions were weak and needed strengthening’
– One of the most frequent reproaches to the Australian programs and initiatives in the Pacific is that Australia always tries to implement the Australian way to do things and govern without clear understanding of the needs of small island nations, mainly due to the peculiarities of the overwhelmingly bureaucratic governing system in Australia. Would you agree?
I think many donors tend to impose their own way of going things in delivering aid. This is largely because Ministers responsible for aid are accountable to their respective parliaments for the effective expenditure of taxpayers’ money and therefore there are tight rules around how that money can be spent.
In Australia, those rules are based on an Australian understanding of appropriate management of public expenditure, which in turn influences how aid projects are managed.
It is generally easier for those implementing aid projects in the public sector in the Pacific to meet the rather onerous reporting requirements imposed by the Australian government if they copy the Australian way of doing things rather than seek to change the parameters of the project to suit evolving local circumstances.
The Australian focus on improving governance in the Pacific has also worked on a presumption that Pacific Island institutions were weak and needed strengthening with better “systems” – ones that were proven to work in Canberra.
It would of course be better if project managers were attuned to the local ways of doing business and worked with local counterparts on systems that are more likely to be supported by the local population and survive in the long term – and there are projects like this. To be fair, Australia wants its aid to be effective and generate change that can be sustained without aid in the future – but the implementation does not always support that goal.
‘As the second largest trading partner of the islands region and a significant investor, China benefits from the maintenance of peace and prosperity’
– In your opinion, should we expect further strengthening of geo-strategic competition between the main world powers in the Pacific? Would it be beneficial for the Pacific island nations in the long term perspective?
China’s influence will continue to expand as its trade, investment and aid ties with Pacific Islands grow. As Australia, New Zealand, Japan, France and the US continue to worry about the impact of the rise of China and take actions to check China’s power and as China responds to those actions, it seems likely that we will see more geo-strategic competition. We will probably see increases in Western aid and in Chinese aid, more Naval ship visits from the traditional powers and from China, more support for security sector capacity, perhaps more support for soft power tools such as scholarships. But I don’t think open conflict between the traditional powers and China is likely to play out in the Pacific Islands region. China does not have territorial interests in the region and is not seeking an active military presence. It is unlikely to want to block sea trade routes for its own trading partners. As the second largest trading partner of the islands region and a significant investor, China benefits from the maintenance of peace and prosperity.
Pacific Island countries have already benefited from Chinese aid and investment and can benefit further from the increased attention they are getting from other emerging powers and from the traditional powers. The challenge for governments will be in managing competing demands from their diplomatic suitors. An increasingly globally assertive China will be making more demands for support for its positions at the United Nations or its operations in the South China Sea. The US, UK, Australia and other partners will be making contradictory demands of Pacific Island governments – to vote against Chinese positions and to oppose its military manoeuvers. It will become more difficult for Pacific Island governments to avoid taking a position or hope that their promises to one diplomatic partner do not have consequences for their relationships with other diplomatic partners.
‘The US is indeed concerned about China’s growing influence in the Pacific but its efforts to counter or to manage China’s rise are more likely to focus on the Pacific Rim and on the US’ own Pacific territories’
– For me, as an outsider coming to the Pacific first in 2017, it was surprising and a bit strange to see a complete absence of the diplomatic presence of United States in Melanesia. Do you think this will change in the next several years due to the same reason of strengthening of geo-strategic competition with China?
It’s not true that there is a complete absence of the diplomatic presence of the US in Melanesia. The United States has embassies in Papua New Guinea and in Fiji that do very good work. It is true, however, that they struggle to get the attention of Washington. I don’t see that changing under President Trump. The US is indeed concerned about China’s growing influence in the Pacific but its efforts to counter or to manage China’s rise are more likely to focus on the Pacific Rim and on the US’ own Pacific territories (Guam, CNMI, American Samoa) and the Compact States (FSM, Palau, RMI) rather than Melanesia. PACOM (the US Pacific Command) appears to be more alert to the risks to the US posed by a more assertive China so if you visit US officials in Hawaii, you will find more anxiety about China than you will in Washington. I think this means it is more likely that we’ll see a greater US military presence in the Pacific Islands – for example, more US Navy ship visits – than an enhanced diplomatic presence.
‘Enhanced Western diplomatic presence and even increased Western country aid in the Pacific Islands is unlikely to have much impact on China’s interests’
The UK has recently announced it is re-opening diplomatic missions in Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu. This is an interesting move that has already been interpreted as an attempt to counter China’s rise. But the new missions will likely be similar in size to the UK’s existing missions in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, which have not been bastions of Western influence deterring China’s growing interests in the region. Like the United States, the UK has a very significant diplomatic presence across Africa and in the Caribbean, which has certainly not deterred dramatic increases in China’s trade and influence in those regions.
Enhanced Western diplomatic presence and even increased Western country aid in the Pacific Islands is unlikely to have much impact on China’s interests. China’s influence in the region, after all, has been driven mostly by rapidly increasing Chinese exports, the investment and government contracts managed by Chinese companies, China’s willingness to fund the building of infrastructure, and new Chinese migrants becoming more dominant in Pacific Island economies – and on a lesser scale, by China’s embassies. It is hard to see the US, UK or even Australia and New Zealand emulating this approach.