17 Jan 2019

Australian PM's trip to Vanuatu described as 'great start'

6:57 pm on 17 January 2019

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison's bilateral meeting with his Vanuatu counterpart Charlot Salwai has been described as a "great start" to developing greater co-operation between the two countries.

Scott Morrison with Carlot Salwai (left) during his visit to Vanuatu

Australian Prime Misister Scott Morrison with Vanuatu prime minister Charlot Salwai, left, during Morrison's visit to Vanuatu. Photo: Dan McGarry

The two men, in a joint statement, reaffirmed the strong, enduring and multifaceted relationship between the two countries.

Issues including security as well as economic and human development were key areas of focus.

Mr Morrison's government renewed its focus on the Pacific as part of its 'step-up' programme and his Vanuatu visit was seen as part of a personal charm offensive.

"When you step up, you have to show up," quipped Mr Morrison to media.

The Vanuatu Daily Post's editor Dan McGarry reported that foreign minister Ralph Regenvanu described the meeting between the two leaders as a "great start".

"The word he used was 'intimate' scenario. In other words it meant that they could interact as peers, as human beings," he said.

"And the evidence of that was quite clear yesterday. Charlot Salwai is normally a very reserved and sometimes even grave individual but he was visibly animated, ebullient even."

According to Dan McGarry, the mood of the Vanuatu PM prompted a spontaneous request of his Australian counterpart which could provide an unexpected boon for local kava exporters.

Mr McGarry reported the two prime ministers have agreed to lifting restrictions on kava exports from Vanuatu.

The action was prompted by a spontaneous request from prime minister Charlot Salwai, said Mr McGarry.

It may be the only economic deliverable arising from the visit.

Kava exports to Australia are currently restricted to personal use with a customs limit of two kilograms of dried kava per person.

The mild narcotic is Vanuatu's third largest export commodity bringing in AU$10 million a year.

Australia's lifting of kava import restrictions came as a surprise for officials from both countries, said Dan McGarry.

"[Charlot Salwai] completely spontaneously raised the issue in a one-on-one meeting with Scott Morrison and to everyone's surprise Scott Morrison responded quite positively," said Mr McGarry.

"And what I'm hearing from senior officials in the government of Vanuatu is that we might see a very concrete plan coming out in less than a month."

Dan McGarry said more significant agreements were in their infancy but the Australian visit has created a good foundation for ongoing and more personal dialogue between the two leaders.

Notable among these is a bilateral security treaty.

Vanuatu is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement of countries and has previously rebuffed overtures from Australia in this area.

However, Dan McGarry said this would not preclude closer co-operation on cyber-security, domestic security including policing, disaster response and humanitarian security.

"All of these things have seen a great deal of very close engagement between Australia and Vanuatu in recent months and years and that is going to be ramped up," said Mr McGarry, who pointed out that Australia's spy chief was in the officials meeting yesterday.

The head of Australia's Office of National Intelligence Nick Warner introduced himself to Vanuatu's foreign minister Ralph Regenvanu, according to Mr McGarry.

"We will see some closer alignment but in a defence context, that's highly unlikely," he said.

Another issue for future debate will be climate change, which prime minister Morrison said was not raised with him by his Vanuatu counterpart.

Vanuatu has been outspoken about Australia's lack of action in combatting domestic green house emissions.

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