Making its own way: Vanuatu in the world [book review]Posted: May 31, 2016
Vanuatu last week signalled its support for China’s position on the South China Sea territorial dispute, a move described in overseas media as “predictable” and a “classic Vanuatu” diplomatic move. Likewise, PM Salwai’s recent calls for procedural integrity in the selection of a new Director-General for the Melanesian Spearhead Group Secretariat and Vanuatu’s long-standing defiance of Indonesia over West Papua together portray a distinctive approach to political affairs. Vanuatu’s political style is one of many documented by Victoria University Press’s new edition of Pacific Ways: Government and Politics in the Pacific Islands.
Editor Stephen Levine suggests that the Pacific’s political diversity is under the spotlight in the twenty-first century, prompting a re-imagining of the oft-quoted ‘Pacific Way’. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the release of Pacific Ways comes just after the launch of ANU’s The New Pacific Diplomacy, edited by Gregory Fry and Sandra Tarte. Both books offer new insights into the new Pacific ‘ways’—the region’s contemporary political landscape—the former through a series of country case studies, the latter through chapters on institutions and issues.
In Pacific Ways, Vanuatu’s own political journey is told by Marc Lanteigne, of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, from the colonial era through Independence in 1980 and up until January’s General Election. Lanteigne revisits the struggle for independence, the challenges of post-colonial development and the subsequent political instability from 1991 to the present, echoing familiar descriptions of Vanuatu’s political history.
Lanteigne lingers on Vanuatu’s foreign relations, particularly China and Taiwan, Europe, the US, and our South Pacific neighbours within the Pacific Islands Forum. Vanuatu’s foreign policy failures—the chequebook diplomacy that led to the recognition of Taiwan (in 2004 under PM Serge Vohor) and Abkhazia and South Ossetia (in 2012 under PM Sato Kilman)—are treated frankly. But missing here is mention of Vanuatu’s long-standing foreign policy commitment as the first Pacific member (in 1983) of the Non-Aligned Movement, a surprising omission considering the role this continues to have in Vanuatu’s global dealings, as ‘a friend to all, enemy to none’.
It is perhaps time for a new perspective of Vanuatu politics. Lanteigne views Vanuatu through the lens of the now-obsolete ‘arc of instability’ narrative, and his chapter reiterates this conventional narrative, particularly in relation to political actors and parties. 2015 saw the arrest and conviction for bribery of over a quarter of Vanuatu’s sitting MPs – a coup for judicial independence unprecedented in the region. Astonishingly, Lanteigne consigns this momentous historical event to a footnote.
Also absent from Lanteigne’s account are the other, little-discussed political realities that balance out the instability narrative, such as the sharing of power between parliament and traditional governance structures, or Vanuatu women’s experience of government and politics. We hear much about Vanuatu’s political instability, but little about Vanuatu’s unwavering commitment to its political ideals, particularly in regard to kastom, the principle of self-determination and freedom of political expression. Many of Vanuatu’s closest Pacific neighbours continue to struggle in these areas, while Vanuatu has consistently upheld them since gaining independence in 1980.
It is time we heard more about this. While Lanteigne rightly gives attention to Vanuatu’s championing of West Papua’s right to self-determination (also reflected in the chapter on West Papua by Gregory B. Poling), discussion of the philosophical and historical underpinnings of Vanuatu’s politics is left out. These need to be better articulated in future political profiles of Vanuatu, as they form the basis what Vanuatu has achieved as a nation in spite of its fractious internal politics. Vanuatu is a global leader in upholding indigenous customs and culture and in exploring alternative indicators for development. Regionally, Vanuatu is upheld as a positive example of donor co-ordination, labour mobility, judicial independence and public finance reform. Vanuatu also stands out as a principled voice within the Melanesian Spearhead Group. As political historian Dr Howard Van Trease describes in Melanesian Politics: Stael blong Vanuatu (1995), Vanuatu’s politics has its roots far beyond government, deep inside community life. This is the ‘Vanuatu Way’.
These oversights aside, Pacific Ways does provide a useful summary of government and politics across the region, concluding with an insightful chapter by Jon Fraenkel on the future of the Pacific’s political institutions and of women’s political representation. Pacific Ways will be welcomed by students of politics, academics, diplomats and the general public for its concise country profiles and accessible text.
Pacific Ways: Government and Politics in the Pacific Islands (Second edition). Edited by Stephen Levine. 416pp. Victoria University Press. NZ$40. ISBN 9781776560684