Vanuatu: A Small Country Of Great Geopolitical Importance – Analysis


The Republic of Vanuatu is a small country in Oceania that plays an important role in climate diplomacy. This is not surprising since climate change threatens to wipe the small Pacific nation off the geographical and political maps. The current president of Vanuatu, Nikenike Vurobaravu, claims that the best defense of his country is being loud in international institutions. And Vanuatu diplomats do this fantastically. Vanuatu was the country that in 1991 promoted the idea that industrialized countries should pay for the irreversible damage caused by climate change that is most affected by developing countries. In November of last year, at the climate talks of the United Nations in Egypt, after 30 years of negotiations, this happened. An agreement was reached on the establishment of a fund that would help poor countries cope with the damage caused by climate change.

Vanuatu – a leader in the fight against climate change

In September of last year, Vurobaravu used the rostrum of the UN General Assembly in New York to call for an agreement on the non-proliferation of fossil fuels for the first time. At the end of last year, Vurobarava presented Vanuatu’s most radical proposal so far. He said he wants the International Court of Justice (ICJ), based in The Hague, to rule on whether governments have “legal obligations” to protect the population from climate hazards, and more importantly, whether failure to meet those obligations can carry “legal consequences” under existing international law. In short, the court is being asked to rule on whether states can be sued for climate negligence. “As a small country that was historically unimportant,” Vurobravu said, Vanuatu has learned to innovate: “If you try to do things the way others do them, I believe we wouldn’t get very far.”

The idea of seeking a legal opinion from the International Court of Justice came from a group of law students four years ago who understand the dangers of climate change. The draft UN resolution on the involvement of the International Court of Justice in climate issues was co-sponsored by 17 other countries, including Germany. Neither the US nor China supported him. On March 29 this year, the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus this landmark resolution requesting the UN to issue an advisory opinion on climate change from the ICJ. More precisely, the resolution requests an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the rights of current and future generations to protection from the effects of climate change, as well as for clarification of the obligations of states under international law in relation to climate change. The resolution calls for the ICJ to pay special attention to the damage caused to small island states that are most vulnerable to the climate crisis. “We have witnessed a victory for climate justice of epic proportions,” said Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau.

Although ICJ advisory opinions are not legally binding, they carry significant legal weight and moral authority. “The advisory opinions of the Court – the main judicial organ of the United Nations – are of enormous importance and can have a long-lasting impact on the international legal order,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “Such an opinion would help the UN General Assembly and member states take the bolder and stronger climate action our world so desperately needs,” Guterres added. Representatives of Vanuatu and other vulnerable countries hope the advisory opinion will encourage countries to strengthen their climate policies and support international plans. It is good that the Vanuatu proposal passed in the UN this time because it shows that the awareness of climate change has increased at the international level. A similar attempt more than a decade ago by two other Pacific island nations, the Marshall Islands and Palau, failed, in large part because of opposition from more powerful countries.

Diplomacy – the only way of defense in a geographically dangerous area

Diplomacy is the only way to defend Vanuatu because the country has no powerful military or economy, and no valuable commodities except tuna, which is drifting further away from Vanuatu’s territorial waters as the oceans warm. Like many island nations, Vanuatu is extremely vulnerable and is therefore at the forefront of the climate justice movement.

From a geographical point of view, the Republic of Vanuatu is located in the southern part of the Pacific Ocean. The country is actually an archipelago of volcanic islands located 1,750 km east of northern Australia, 540 km northeast of New Caledonia, east of New Guinea, southeast of the Solomon Islands and west of Fiji. Located in the Pacific “ring of fire”, it is exposed to frequent volcanic and seismic activity, rising sea levels and tropical cyclones. The Vanuatu archipelago consists of a total of 83 small islands (65 inhabited), and the distance between the northernmost and southernmost islands is 1,300 km.

Tropical cyclones

In March 2023, this Pacific island nation was hit by two Category 4 tropical cyclones in less than five days. The Vanuatu government estimates that this weather event will cost the country more than half of its annual GDP. In addition, the country has been hit by two Category 5 cyclones in recent years, which have had serious consequences for the national economy and society. In 2015, Tropical Storm Pam caused $590 million in damage, equivalent to 64% of the nation’s GDP, left 75,000 people homeless and destroyed 96% of crops. During the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, Vanuatu was hit by Category 5 Cyclone Harold, which made landfall with winds of up to 265 km/h. The rapidly strengthening cyclone was the second strongest storm to hit Vanuatu and caused significant damage, decimating crops and buildings. In Sanma province alone, about 90% of the population lost their homes. In total, six villages on four islands have already been relocated. Drinking water has become salty and it is no longer livable. Cyclones and warmer ocean waters destroyed the coral reefs and fish on which many people survived. Dengue fever and malaria are on the rise. According to scientists, tropical cyclones are predicted to become stronger as ocean temperatures rise due to climate change.

History of the islands

Vanuatu has a unique history. The Vanuatu islands were first inhabited around 2000 B.C. by Austronesian speakers from the Solomon Islands. Around the year 1000, systems of local chieftainships began to develop on the islands. In the middle of the 15th century, there was an eruption of the Kuwae volcano, which resulted in frequent internal conflicts due to the decreasing availability of food, especially on the island of Efate. Around 1600, Chief Roi Mata united the island of Efate under his rule. In 1606, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros was the first European to see the Vanuatu Islands. He named the island Espiritu Santo and established a short-lived settlement there. The next European explorers arrived in the 1760s, and in 1774 British navigator James Cook named the islands the New Hebrides. In the early 1800s, Europeans were attracted to sandalwood, and then to land. Settlers built cotton, coffee, banana and coconut plantations. The islands were often visited by whalers, and the interest in logging sandalwood on the islands caused conflict between the Europeans and the local people of Ni-Vanuatu. Catholic and Protestant missionaries arrived in the 1840s, but faced difficulties in converting the locals.

During the 1860s, European planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia and Samoa needed labor and kidnapped almost half of the adult males on the islands and forced them to work as servants. Due to growing interests in the islands, France and Great Britain agreed that the New Hebrides would be neutral in 1878, and in 1887 they established a joint maritime commission. In 1906, the two countries created a British-French condominium to jointly govern the islands and established separate laws, police forces, currencies, and education and health systems. The condominium arrangement was dysfunctional and the British took advantage of France’s defeat by Germany in World War II in 1940 to assert greater control over the islands. As Japan advanced through Melanesia, the US stationed up to 50,000 troops in Vanuatu to prevent further Japanese advances. In 1945, American troops withdrew and sold their equipment, leading to the rise of political and religious cults, such as the John Frum movement.

The Anglo-French condominium was re-established after 1945. London was interested in the condominium’s progress towards independence in the 1960s, but Paris was hesitant and political parties agitating for independence began to form, largely divided along language lines. France eventually relented and elections were held in 1974, and Vanuatu gained independence on 30 July 1980 under English-speaking Prime Minister Walter Lini. At independence, the Nagriamel Movement, supported by French-speaking landowners, declared Espiritu Santo independent, but the short-lived state was dissolved three months later. Linguistic divisions have narrowed over time, but highly fragmented political parties have led to weak coalition governments that require the support of both Anglophone and Francophone parties.

General features of the country

The Republic of Vanuatu is a democratic country where the parliament makes all important decisions. The powers of the president, who is elected for a five-year term by a two-thirds majority vote of the electoral college, are primarily ceremonial. The prime minister gives the keynote speech with the support of the parliament. Since 2008, prime ministers have been dismissed 10 times due to a vote of no confidence in the parliament. The parliament is unicameral and has 52 representatives, who are elected by voting every four years. At the top of the judiciary is the Supreme Court. The legal system is based on British common law and French civil law. The country is administratively divided into six regions: Malampa, Penama, Sanma, Shefa, Tafea and Torba.

The capital is Port Villa (51,000 inhabitants). The second largest city is Luganville (18,000 people). The official languages are Bislam (a local creole language close to English), English and French. About 307,000 inhabitants live on an area of 12,189 square kilometers, of which the land area is only 4,700 km. About 98% of the population is Melanesian, specifically the local people of Ni-Vanuatu. Other ethnic groups include Polynesians (1%), immigrants from Micronesia and Europeans (0.5%). In terms of religious structure, Christians prevail convincingly (93.3%), followed by indigenous religions (4.1%). The largest islands are Espiritu Santo, Malakula, Efate, Erromango and Ambrym. Matthew and Hunter islands belong to France (French overseas entity New Caledonia). The average population density is 19.7 inhabitants per square km. The most densely populated is the island of Efate with 35 people/km2 where one quarter of all inhabitants live. The hilly interior of the island is sparsely populated, most of the inhabitants live in villages along the coast. It is interesting that only about 25% of the population lives in cities.

The economy is based on agriculture and tourism. About two thirds of the population work in the agricultural sector. Agriculture is partly focused on domestic consumption (growing tares, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, coconuts, pig farming) and partly on exports (coconuts, cocoa, coffee, beef, veal). In terms of fishing, the ocean around Vanuatu is rich in tuna that is exported, i.e. the state grants fishing concessions to foreign, usually Chinese, fishermen. Industry is poorly developed, accounting for only 10% of the national GDP and employing 5% of the workforce. The main export partners are Japan, Thailand, Mauritania, South Korea, China and Fiji. Most of the exports are fish and fish products, fishing boats, followed by agricultural goods. The main import partners are China, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Taiwan and Thailand. It mainly imports petroleum products, fishing boats, delivery vehicles, frozen paultry and electronics. Tourism is an important source of foreign exchange earnings. Vanuatu is widely known as one of the best vacation destinations for divers who want to explore the coral reefs of the South Pacific region. Some reality TV-shows like Survivor were also filmed there.

Offshore financial services are also an important part of the economy. Vanuatu is actually a tax haven that, until 2008, did not provide information about offshore accounts when requested by other governments or law enforcement agencies. International pressure, mainly from Australia, has influenced the government to adhere to international norms to improve transparency. There is no income tax, withholding tax, capital gains tax, inheritance tax or exchange rate controls in Vanuatu. Many international shipping companies choose to flag their ships to Vanuatu because of tax incentives and labor laws that favor shippers but not workers (“flag of convenience”).

Multidimensional foreign policy

In 1981, Vanuatu took a seat in the UN General Assembly. Since independence, in addition to membership in the UN, the country has become a member of the British Commonwealth, the International Organization of Francophone Countries, the Pacific Islands Forum, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the IMF. Moreover, on Vanuatu’s initiative, the multilateral organization Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) was created in 1990 – a bloc of 39 countries that became influential in global climate negotiations. Vanuatu’s diplomatic strategy has been shaped by its history. Britain and France, rival powers, have never been able to agree on most matters concerning the governance of the country, and that is why Vanuatu’s policy makers know how to maneuver between multiple poles.

Vanuatu has a multidimensional foreign policy and does not only play the card of the West or the East, but tries to realistically use its opportunities and at the same time remain good with everyone. It has excellent relations with Australia, New Zealand and France. China has been strengthening its diplomatic influence in the Pacific in recent years, including in Vanuatu, which is introducing Chinese language classes in its schools. China is the main creditor, so in 2018 it was announced that 50% of Vanuatu’s public debt was owed to Chinese banks. There is a possibility that the country will “pay off” its debt by allowing the Chinese military to establish a base at the port of Luganville. Beijing has financed a $114 million renovation of the dock, which has already been built with the capacity to dock military ships.

Vanuatu also maintains close relations with Russia and is ahead of other Pacific nations. In 2011, Port Vila briefly established diplomatic relations with Abkhazia, a breakaway region in Georgia, siding with Russian interests. In the UN Security Council, when voting on the Ukraine crisis, Vanuatu avoids condemning Russia and imposing sanctions on it. Chooses neutral status. At the beginning of April of this year, it was announced that the USA plans to open an embassy on the islands in order to suppress Chinese-Russian influence as much as possible and to strengthen its diplomatic activity in an area that China is increasingly conquering diplomatically and economically. Probably because of its multidimensional foreign policy, last fall the government’s servers suffered a major cyber attack that took down the government’s websites.

In addition to the fight for the climate, Vanuatu’s representatives at the UN also fight for human rights. Thus, in March 2017, at the session of the UN Human Rights Council, Vanuatu made a joint statement on behalf of some other Pacific states in which it pointed to human rights violations in the West New Guinea region (part of Indonesia since 1963) and requested that the High Commissioner The UN Human Rights Commission produces a report as more than 100,000 Papuans have died during decades of conflict. Indonesia has denied the allegations. In September of the same year, at the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly, the Prime Ministers of Vanuatu, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands again raised their concerns about the human rights situation in West New Guinea.

It can be concluded that Vanuatu is an example of a small country that can be geopolitically important and recognized in the world if it represents the right ideas in a creative and loud way. The fight to preserve the planet is a priority that goes beyond the rivalry of several great powers fighting for supremacy. If climate change devastates humanity, all other topics become irrelevant. The importance of a country is not only determined by its quantity in territorial area, population and armed forces, but also by the quality of the ideas it represents. Of course, in doing so, some other countries should be persuaded to support these ideas in order to gain importance. Vanuatu does this admirably.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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