11 Jul 2024

First ever foreign policy document 'elevates Vanuatu's voice'

11:10 am on 11 July 2024
The 52-page document outlines four overarching objectives.

The 52-page document outlines four overarching objectives, Photo: Screenshot / Vanuatu National Foreign Policy

An expert in Melanesian politics says Vanuatu's first ever foreign policy document gives it "enhanced credibility" amid competition by major geopolitical powers, like the United States and China, for influence in the region.

Prime Minister Charlot Salwai launched the National Foreign Policy on 3 July, which lays out the Pacific Island nation's non-aligned position.

"A foreign policy paper is essential for a country for several reasons," Salwai was quoted in the Vanuatu Daily Post.

The policy describes Vanuatu as being "unwillingly" thrust into the power competition in the Pacific and having great demands placed on its diplomacy as a result.

The 52-page document outlines four overarching objectives; to promote Vanuatu's sovereignty and to protect its national boundaries, to enhance the prosperity and well-being of the people of Vanuatu at home and abroad, through effective bilateral, regional, and international cooperation and trade, to promote a stable, secure, and prosperous region as a responsible member of the Blue Pacific Continent, and to contribute to global well-being through international cooperation on key global challenges.

Foreign policy provides details in how a country can engage in international trade, investment, economic agreement and what will impact its economic growth and stability. It also states how we can manage international crisis and humanitarian issues.

Foreign policy provides details in how a country can engage in international trade, investment, economic agreement and what will impact its economic growth and stability. It also states how we can manage international crisis and humanitarian issues. Photo: Facebook / Ministry of the Prime Minister - Vanuatu

Griffith University Adjunct Associate Professor Tess Newton Cain told RNZ Pacific the document, in one form or another, has been over a decade in the making.

Newton Cain said it has taken a while to produce because people are more concerned about things that affect them at home, such as, cost of living, education, health, all of those sorts of things.

She said as in all countries, including New Zealand and Australia, when it comes to elections and what was top of mind for voters, foreign policy takes a back seat.

"I think that's one issue. There's been no demand for it from the electorate as such. I think also needs to be something that is obviously informed by political party platforms, but it's something that everyone can kind of sign up to.

She also said such a document was important for continuity in Vanuatu's foreign policy.

"It needs to be something that isn't just for now, that's then going to be thrown out and disregarded and completely rewritten by whoever comes in next. I think that applies in all countries, but particularly in a country like Vanuatu, where there are quite frequent changes of government."

Newton Cain believes by highlighting what its values, interests, and resource constraints are through the policy, it will help Vanuatu be able to "massage and finesse" conversations on geopolitical competition in the region, which "was not a competition of their making."

"The [foreign policy document] elevates Vanuatu's voice to sit alongside maybe what we usually think of the big hitters in terms of regional politics."

She said while it may not be "particularly radical", it does make some quite clear statements about where Vanuatu sees itself and where it wants to go and how it wants to get there.

"It does give Vanuatu an enhanced credibility or enhanced gravitas in being part of those regional conversations they might otherwise not necessarily be involved in."

Newton Cain said the policy has been described as a "living document" and noted there was scope to keep it under review and to adjust it as necessary.

"I don't think it's something that's going to be reviewed and rewritten on a very regular basis. It's more of a guideline.

"It's a policy document rather than legislation so it doesn't create any legal obligations or requirements on the part of particular ministries or agencies."

Newton Cain said the document demonstrates to the outside world that Vanuatu has done some thinking about this and it has particular positions which are laid out in the policy.

"So if you want to know what does Vanuatu think about foreign policy or geostrategic competition or trade, we can now just point to that and say, 'here is the most recent, comprehensive statement of what Vanuatu's position on these issues is'."

'A Vanuatu document'

Newton Cain said there were key things that were stated and restated that made it clear that "this is a Vanuatu document".

"One was, there's numerous references to Vanuatu's position as a member of the non-aligned movement. I was in Vanuatu recently and a member of the government described Vanuatu was being 'staunchly non-aligned'.

She said the non-aligned position is something that Vanuatu holds "very dear" and is a "foundation stone" of this type of thinking and the foreign policy work.

The other thing that stood out was several references to the issue of the border dispute with France of Matthew and Hunter Islands, which is the southernmost islands claimed by Vanuatu.

"That's obviously a significant issue on a number of fronts, including the diplomatic relationship with France, the delimitation of Vanuatu's EEZ. All of those things come into play.

"Kava diplomacy gets mentioned in one of the preamble documents. So there are a few little nuggets throughout there that really give it a very strong Vanuatu flavour."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs