14 Jan 2019

ScoMo trip to Vanuatu an historic precedent

6:04 pm on 14 January 2019

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's trip to Vanuatu this week will set an historic precedent according to a senior local journalist.

Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison Photo: AFP

The editor of Vanuatu Daily Post's Dan McGarry said it will be the first time an Australian leader will visit exclusively for a bilateral meeting with their Vanuatu counterpart.

Bob Hawke visited in 1990 for a Pacific Islands Forum leaders summit.

Mr Morrison is scheduled to spend Wednesday and Thursday in Port Vila before leaving for Fiji in what's seen as a push to stem China's growing influence in the region.

The visit, said Dan McGarry, is a necessary step in bringing the two nations closer together.

"As many have observed over the years Pacific politics are personal," he said.

"In other words, if you don't know the leaders individually and personally it's very difficult to conduct business with them on a more formal level and so this willingness, this desire, to build the personal relationship is something that's not gone unnoticed."

This is consistent across the Pacific said Mr McGarry, and important if Australia is to build on its strategic relationship with Vanuatu.

Australia sees Vanuatu's relationship with China as a strategic threat, "One that is looming and possibly even imminent," according to Mr McGarry.

"Vanuatu on the other hand has characterised China as 'a' best friend, not 'the' best friend but Charlot Salwai did state that China is 'a' best friend of Vanuatu.

Vanuatu's prime minister Charlot Salwai.

Vanuatu's prime minister Charlot Salwai. Photo: RNZ/Koroi Hawkins

"The relationship is close and continuing and there's no expectation that that's going to change," said Mr McGarry.

However, he added that Vanuatu had no appetite for any military presence in the country and that the voting public, "would have some very strong opinions about it and I really doubt that that would last beyond the next election," said Mr McGarry.

Vanuatu's planned co-operation with Australia in implementing stronger and more robust cyber-security was indicative of the levels of trust between to two countries he said.

"I don't think anybody's labouring under the misapprehension that China would be a better partner for something like that.

"Certainly, those of us who value free speech and democracy would be aghast," said Dan McGarry.

Mr Morrison will be opening Vanuatu's refurbished Vanuatu Police College during his visit which follows involvement in the recruitment of 300 new police officers.

He is visiting the country at the invitation of his Vanuatu counterpart, Charlot Salwai, and is expected to make a courtesy call on the Head of State, President Obed Moses Tallis, among his official engagements.