Caught Between China and the West, a Pacific Island Nation Ousts Its Leader

With 1,200 miles of almost empty ocean to its west and more than 7,000 miles of the same to its east, the tiny Pacific archipelago nation of Vanuatu has long sought a position of neutrality toward its faraway would-be foreign partners.

Now, as the United States and China jockey for more influence in the South Pacific, that balancing act has become fraught. Take the case of Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau, who in recent months signed a security pact with Australia, met with President Emmanuel Macron of France, welcomed American plans to set up an embassy in Vanuatu, and hosted Chinese police experts in Port Vila, the capital.

But for Mr. Kalsakau’s political opponents, he had veered too close to the West. On Monday, 10 months after he become the country’s leader, Mr. Kalsakau was ousted in a no-confidence vote. Mr. Kalsakau’s camp says his detractors and the new prime minister, Sato Kilman, are hardly neutral, and have accused China of interfering in Vanuatu’s politics.

Both sides have rejected the allegations thrown at them — but what is clear is that the country of around 320,000 people is again engulfed in political turmoil. Vanuatu has had four different leaders in five years.

As more powerful players exert their influence in the Pacific, Vanuatu and its island neighbors, including Fiji, Samoa and the Solomon Islands, have been courted by China and the West with offers of aid and financial support.

The biggest country in the region, Australia, is the largest source of humanitarian assistance for Vanuatu. China is Vanuatu’s biggest overseas creditor, and in recent years it has financed and built a large wharf on the island nation.

“Vanuatu has always maintained, quite doggedly, this nonaligned position,” said Tess Newton Cain, an expert on the region at Griffith University in Australia. “Across the board, within the Vanuatu leadership, there is quite a well-developed sense that the best thing for them to do is not pick a side.”

She added: “The best thing to be is a prize not yet won.”

Concerns about managing that position were apparent in the text of the no-confidence motion that led to Mr. Kalsakau’s ouster.

The government “must conduct its relations impartially,” the motion read, “and not allow our independent and sovereign nation to be sucked into a game it does not want and to be used inappropriately by competing nations to exert dominance in our region.”

Mr. Kilman, the new prime minister, has already indicated that the accord with Australia, which calls on the nations to establish “efficient and effective security cooperation” and which has not yet been ratified by Vanuatu’s Parliament, may be abandoned or substantially changed.

“At this point in time, I am not sure whether it is in the best interests of Vanuatu or not,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “If it is not all good, and there needs to be some changes, then we speak with Australia to see what we can do together to make it something workable.”

Mr. Kilman, who is now taking his fifth turn as the country’s prime minister, is widely described as being more open to Chinese cooperation than his predecessor. In 2012, he made headlines after he expelled all Australian police officers in retaliation for what he described as “disrespectful” treatment during a visit to Australia. Three years later, after his return to the prime ministerial role, he met with Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, and pledged closer ties between the two countries.

As leader of the opposition, Mr. Kalsakau said he intends to fight for the security deal and to support the planned U.S. Embassy, said Kalvau Moli, his former chief of staff. “We will be setting up a motion of inquiry into Chinese influence in this recent election,” he said.

For most residents of Vanuatu, questions of foreign interference were far from top of the agenda, as the country battles economic difficulties and the recovery from twin cyclones earlier this year, Dr. Newton Cain said.

Vanuatu’s per capita gross domestic product is just over $3,100, according to International Monetary Fund statistics.

“The vibe around the political turmoil is one of frustration,” Dr. Newton Cain said. “They just need everyone to sit down, and do their jobs, and do them properly, for a significant period of time.”

Even so, foreign policy remains a critical tool for Vanuatu. Facing existential threats from climate change, the country has also fought a valiant David-Goliath fight against more powerful nations, calling on the International Court of Justice earlier this year to issue an opinion on whether governments have “legal obligations” to protect people from climate hazards and whether nations can be sued their failure to mitigate them.

The tumult in Vanuatu, said Dominic O’Sullivan, a political scientist at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia, could also have ripple effects on the rest of the region.

“Vanuatu gets an awful lot of aid from both Australia and China, but China, I think, expects a lot more in return,” he said.

“Australia would like neutrality. China doesn’t want neutrality — it wants an ally.”

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