Greg Colton, Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute, in this exclusive interview for Vila Times talks about studying the main drivers of instability in the South Pacific, the Pacific island nations becoming more important internationally, protecting natural resources of Vanuatu and potential for China to have its military base here.
‘The idea that the Pacific is an ‘ocean continent’ is an important one to understand, especially for those in Australia and the US’
– Hi Greg. Tell me about the South Pacific Fragile States Project. What are the “key drivers of instability in the South Pacific”?
The project has taken a very broad view of security. So, while my paper has concentrated on the geostrategic drivers of instability in the region, we have also looked at domestic drivers of instability (such as rapid urbanisation and changing youth demographics), and non-traditional drivers of instability (such as how climate change is threatening food security in the Pacific). The project has also emphasised that the Pacific Islands region is not a homogenous area but is made up of 22 countries and territories that all have very different cultures, peoples and challenges. Thus, the issues faced by Kiribati, for example, are very different to those faced by Vanuatu. I think the idea that the Pacific is an ‘ocean continent’ is an important one to understand, especially for those in Australia and the US who may not have had much personal contact with the region.
‘57% of the world’s global catch of skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye and albacore come from the western and central Pacific, an industry worth approximately US$5.7 billion per year’
– In the latest interview fro Pacific Beat you said Small Pacific island states have their large exclusive economic zones, and that in fact makes them “enormous large ocean states.” This is an interesting angle, but what it really means for the Pacific island nations?
Within the 200 nautical mile of exclusive economic zones lie significant resources. Fisheries is the obvious example, but others can include mineral resources beneath the seabed and locations to develop ecological tourism. But if we just look at Tuna Fisheries, 57% of the world’s global catch of skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye and albacore come from the western and central Pacific, an industry worth approximately US$5.7 billion per year. However, protecting resources such as tuna stocks can be a real challenge to Pacific Island nations which themselves have limited resources. This is partly why the Australian government is spending AUS$2 billion over the next thirty years on the Pacific Maritime Security Program. This will include the gifting of 19 specially designed Patrol Boats to 12 countries. These patrol boats will give Pacific Island countries the ability to better patrol their exclusive economic zones and combat illegal fishing, people smuggling, and transnational crime. At present Vanuatu is due to receive one of these patrol boats in early 2020.
‘Pacific Islands region can be far more influential if it works towards common goals in organisations such as the UN’
– In the interview you said “the Pacific becomes more important within the international arena.” What are the main drivers of growing international importance of the region? What has changed during the last several years?
There are two reasons the Pacific is becoming more important on the international stage: one is economic and the other one is political. Economically, as I have touched on above, the creation of 200 nautical mile economic exclusion zones under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea gave Pacific Island nations access to exploitable resources that they had not previously enjoyed. Other nations are interested in negotiating access to those resources, for example the US, Chinese and Japanese tuna fishing fleets. Politically, the role that Pacific Island nations have played in bringing climate change to the forefront of global politics has been significant and, for the first time, places Pacific leaders at the forefront of international forums. It should also be remembered that while the Pacific Islands region only contains around 0.12% of the global population, it carries about 6% of the vote in the United Nations general assembly. As a result, the Pacific Islands region can be far more influential if it works towards common goals in organisations such as the UN than Pacific Island nations would be as individual countries.
‘Corrupt politicians who fill their own bank accounts with money that should be spent on improving the lives of the people they were elected to represent are a potential source of instability’
– In the context of “instability in the South Pacific” I would like to ask about the corruption in the Pacific. Are there signs of growing levels of corruption in the Pacific island states in the last years?
Dr Stewart Firth’s paper, which will be published by the Lowy Institute later this month, looks at this in much greater detail than I will go into here. The short answer is: it depends. Corrupt politicians who fill their own bank accounts with money that should be spent on improving the lives of the people they were elected to represent are a potential source of instability, particularly if it causes civil unrest. But in other areas it is less clear. A good example is the case of ‘Constituency Funds’ in PNG and Solomon Islands. In many western countries the thought of a politician controlling the distribution of funds within their electorates would lead to outcries of corruption. However, in Pacific Islands where there are few local government bureaucracies to fill this role, it can be an effective way of funding grassroots projects. So, it is a complicated situation that varies country to country.
‘Last week China announced that it will build a new official house for the President of Vanuatu. Projects such as this can appear as if China’s aid program is designed to buy influence with political leaders rather than assist the people of Vanuatu’
– China and “concessional loans.” It seems that Australia doesn’t have a particular position in regard to this part of Chinese economic policy in the Pacific? Does Australia consider concessional loans to be unethical, a sort of dirty trick, not supposed to be used against small undeveloped countries this way?
Australia does not have a set position on concessional loans per se, however there are concerns about the amount of loans China provides in comparison to grants. For example, well over 76% of all the money China has provided Vanuatu is through concessional loans and thus requires repaying. This places varying degrees of debt stress on countries such as Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga, all of which owe China a significant amount of money in loans. In Vanuatu, for example, about 47% of your external debt is to China. There is also concern that, unlike concessional loans from Japan for example, the rates of return for loans from China are very hard to ascertain and this opaqueness is a worry to some. Additionally, it is worth noting that for every dollar in interest that countries such as Vanuatu are paying on loan repayments is a dollar that cannot be spent on delivering services to the people of Vanuatu. Finally, there are some concerns about the projects the money from China is funding. Port Vila’s enormous $19 million national convention centre is often quoted – was that really the most pressing priority for Vanuatu? Last week China announced that it will build a new official house for the President of Vanuatu. Projects such as this can appear as if China’s aid program is designed to buy influence with political leaders rather than assist the people of Vanuatu.
It certainly is a different emphasis to overseas development assistance than Australia has. Australia is Vanuatu’s largest development partner with the estimate for 2017-2018 standing at $69.8 million. Australia’s focus is more on improving social and economic governance systems. As a result, Australia has helped lift school enrolment rates to 875, reduce malarial incidence from 7% to 1%, and through assisting the deregulation of the telecommunications sector has help lift mobile phone subscriptions from 4.8% of the population in 2004 to over 71% by 2011 (and no doubt higher since).
– Examining transnational crime in the Pacific is a part of South Pacific Fragile States Project. What is a typical “transnational crime in the Pacific,” how does it look? What comes to my mind is just everything related to money laundering in the Pacific tax havens and maybe the drugs shipping routes through the Pacific to Australia.
You are right in that transnational crime is a catch-all term that covers a manner of activities. In essence transnational crime is any crime that crosses the border between two or more sovereign states. This can be the poaching of animals or illegal fishing, people smuggling, money laundering or drug trafficking. The Australian Federal Police has helped member states of the Pacific Islands Forum establish Transnational Crime Units whose work is coordinated by the Pacific Transnational Crime Coordination Centre in Apia, Samoa. The aim is to reduce the social and economic costs of crime across the region.
‘It would not surprise me if there had been low level discussions on China’s military base in Vanuatu’
– This week’s media report about China’s plans for the military base in Vanuatu. The information has been denied both by China’s and Vanuatu’s governments. You think China does have a military base in Vanuatu as its long term strategic plan?
The story has come somewhat out of the blue and, as you have pointed out, has been robustly denied by the governments of both China and Vanuatu. However, it would not surprise me if there had been low level discussions on the matter, albeit I suspect for a ‘dual use’ facility rather than a full-blown base similar to that which China has in Djibouti. It is too soon to say whether this is part of a long-term strategy, but certainly China has previously forgiven aspects of debt in return for control of infrastructure that would be of use to its Navy. Sri Lanka is the classic example of this, where the Sri Lankan government gave China a 99 year lease of the strategic port of Hambantota in return for reducing some of the US$8 billion debt Sri Lanka owes China. So, I think many analysts are concerned that similar circumstances will allow China to exploit debt stress in Pacific Islands countries in return for control of strategic infrastructure.