Across the Pacific, local politics are being shaken by the echoing footsteps of distant giants. The United States and China are competing over small islands that could play an outsize role as logistical nodes in any future conflict—including the archipelago of Vanuatu and its roughly 320,000 citizens.
Today may be the final hours for the brief tenure of Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau, as a last-ditch appeal filed Monday (over the Supreme Court ruling on Aug. 25 that ended his time in office following a parliamentary no-confidence vote) is under review by the court. The opposition won the vote—a common parliamentary maneuver in Vanuatu—26-23, but the government questioned whether it had reached the “absolute majority” needed for victory given the absence of several MPs.
Kalsakau’s administration is largely viewed as pro-Western. He supports a U.S. Embassy in the islands; more aid; and the reintroduction of development by France, the country’s former colonial master (alongside the United Kingdom) before independence in 1980. He says he welcomes Chinese investment, but he’s skeptical of Beijing’s goals—and supports a security deal with Canberra.
His main opposition is former Vanuatu Prime Minister Bob Loughman, a pro-China leader who lost power to Kalsakau in a snap election in November 2022, and has made several attempts to oust him since then. It’s not the first time China has been key to the archipelago’s politics; in 2004, a secret deal by then-Prime Minister Serge Vohor to switch diplomatic recognition away from Beijing to Taipei toppled Vohor’s government, and the deal was rescinded.
Speaking to Foreign Policy, Kalsakau characterized the vote as premature and defended his domestic and international policies, saying, “I’ve only been in office for eight months, and it’s too early for anyone to say that my government’s policies have failed or are ineffective. Just in the last eight months, we’ve seen more traffic in terms of engagement with our partners around the world than in the last two or three years.
It was at a meeting with Kalsakau in late July that French President Emmanuel Macron denounced a “new imperialism in the Pacific.” Kalsakau said his own concern was with French-Vanuatan relations, and that he was keen for the return of the Agence Française de Développement (the French Development Agency) because it had been responsible for “great strides in our economic development” before it “packed everything up and left” in the early 1980s.
He also urged the United States to “come and set up quickly. Set up [the U.S.Embassy], and we’ll talk after.” He wants to raise this issue at the Pacific Islands summit at the White House next month with President Joe Biden—but that may be dependent on Kalsakau staying in power.
Both Washington and Beijing are looking to get a presence on the ground in Vanuatu. Apart from the possible embassy, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been looking to open new regional missions in the Pacific, including a new office in Port Moresby that would service Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, and Vanuatu. China, meanwhile, has sent security experts to the archipelago this weekend, anticipating a new administration that might sign a deal with Beijing akin to the controversial police deal in the Solomon Islands. Kalsakau said he would like to see attention “much closer to home” from USAID and others, especially on climate change.
But the most controversial political stance that Kalsakau took was on signing a security deal with Australia last December, covering broad police cooperation and reaffirming a commitment to common defense. The deal, set for ratification later this year, has been heavily criticized by the opposition.
But Kalsakau is blunt, arguing that the deal poses no threat to Vanuatu’s sovereignty, as the opposition claim, and that it’s no different from earlier development aid. He told Foreign Policy, “I am not withdrawing from that [security deal] at all. It will go through its process on the National Security Council, and after that the Council of Ministers, then it goes to Parliament. Then anyone can comment on its suitability otherwise.”
The choice between China and the West is often portrayed in zero-sum terms, but Kalsakau puts it differently, saying, “We have a policy of ‘friends to all and enemies to none.’ We have a very good relationship with China. We challenge anyone in the world who would accuse that relationship of bordering on Vanuatu’s sovereignty. … I don’t see any other relationship with any other country in the world, including China, that will comprise this [Vanuatu’s sovereignty].”
Kalsakau also pointed to the country’s continued relationship with the People’s Republic of China since Vanuatu’s independence. But Chinese domestic politics put a slight crimp on the celebration of ties earlier this year: then-Foreign Minister Qin Gang gave a “special video” speech on March 26 to toast 41 years of diplomatic relations—one of his last before his mysterious disappearance a few weeks later.
However international ties play out, Kalsakau or his successors face major problems at home. A major cyberattack by an unknown assailant days before he took office in November 2022 crippled government servers for months and sent staff to rely on phone books, typewriters, and pencils.
But the biggest challenge is climate change and attendant disasters. This February and March, back-to-back cyclones and an earthquake devastated the islands, costing the country as much as 40 percent of GDP.
This inspired some of the fire for a widely noted speech by Kalsakau about the climate crisis to the United Nations General Assembly last March, where he talked of taking the issue to the International Criminal Court with a south-south coalition.
Of this progress, Kalsakau said, “We’re still heading toward the ICJ [International Court of Justice], and I have my climate change minister quite heavily involved in oil and gas as well as the fossil fuels treaty. You know our backs are against the wall. We’re the country that’s most prone to natural disaster, so we’re not letting up at all. We’re ensuring that we do everything that we can to not only get the world’s attention, but also to do as much as we can to be able to reduce our emissions in our country as well.”
Whatever the challenges or offers by the United States and China, Kalsakau emphasized, “We need to change all our mindsets in order to save our planet … without the existence of our planet, there can be nothing else.”