Associate Professor Helen Gardner, Deakin University

Today the island nations of Melanesia rarely figure in Australia’s consciousness. Despite our geographical proximity they seem distant places in terms of relevance or significance.  The islands are only news when viewed through our global strategic interests or when natural disasters strike.  So the suggestion that the Chinese might seek to establish a military base in Vanuatu draws us to our Google Maps where we are astonished to learn that the distance from Brisbane to Port Vila, is roughly the same as from Melbourne to Brisbane.

Yet we were not always so unaware of our place in the region.  The Chinese news is a direct reminder of the long and shared history between Vanuatu and Australia and the ways in which we interacted with our island neighbours in the past.   

The perceived Chinese threat echoes a period prior to Federation when Australian colonists were alarmed by the expansion of European empires into Melanesia and developed a fledgling foreign policy. In the 1870s France looked to add the islands of Vanuatu (then New Hebrides) to neighbouring New Caledonia.  The new German empire eyed New Guinea. Presbyterians in the colony of Victoria were anxious that their mission to Vanuatu and their hard-won converts in the southern islands of the group would fall to Catholic France and pressed the colonial government to act. 

The Australian colonial media was in a frenzy over French convicts who escaped from New Caledonia and sailed to the eastern seaboard of Australia.  As a result, the Victorian premier Graeme Berry was sympathetic to the influential Presbyterians of the colony who proposed the islands be annexed.  In the period before Federation our foreign policy was the prerogative of the British Colonial Office, but Berry suggested that the Australian colonies stake their claim to the region by establishing an Australian Monroe Doctrine.  This was a reference to American President James Monroe who, earlier in the 19th century, insisted that no European Empire could interfere with the Americas.  It became the bed-rock of American foreign policy invoked by presidents from that day to this. John F. Kennedy used it to demand that the Russian ships carrying missiles for Cuba turn back in 1962.  And Reagan used it to justify his intervention in Nicaragua’s affairs in the mid-1980s. 

From colonial Victoria under Berry to Federal Australia under Malcolm Turnbull over the last few days, Australia’s Monroe Doctrine has been intermittently recalled.

Alfred Deakin took up the cause of Vanuatu with gusto and in 1888 berated the Colonial Secretary over his failure to counter the imperial ambitions of the French.  By now, Germany had taken the north coast of east New Guinea and the islands of New Britain and New Ireland despite the demands of the Australian colonists. Papua became an Australian territory after Federation and German New Guinea was claimed for Australia with the outbreak of war in 1914.

But Vanuatu was more complex. After a long stand-off marked by ongoing agitation by Australia, the British and French established a joint administration, a Condominium, in 1906. Quickly dubbed the pandemonium, the failings of this colonial oddity meant the Presbyterians of Australia kept up their pressure on the Australian government to intervene. By now, a significant proportion of the population of the islands was Presbyterian and well aware of links between their islands and the Australian churches. Through the 20th century successive Australian governments considered the issue of the Condominium and in the 1950s Presbyterian prime minister Robert Menzies contemplated taking over the administration from the British and French, though was thwarted by the anti-colonial sentiment of the post-war era.

The strongest connections between Australia and Vanuatu were forged in the long march towards independence when the British pushed for decolonisation against a reluctant French who were concerned that an independent Vanuatu would open the floodgates of Indigenous New Caledonian demands for political freedom.  

Trained by Presbyterian and Anglican teachers and supported by an increasingly radical wing of the Presbyterian Church in Australia, young ni-Vanuatu pastors and activists led an independence movement in Vanuatu and sought assistance from Australia. It came from trade unions, student bodies, the churches and eventually the Australian government when a provisional ni-Vanuatu government in exile met Andrew Peacock.

When Vanuatu became independent in 1980 it did so with strong Australian support and the Presbyterians of the new nation, in particular, have never forgotten it. The historical narrative amongst this politically and numerically significant component of the population is that from the origins of the colonial period, they have been supported by Australian churches and large sectors of the Australian population. Many ni-Vanuatu believe they owe their independence to these ties.  The other component of the population is Catholic, Francophone, and is oriented towards New Caledonia. 

It is for these reasons that the extent of China’s interest in Vanuatu or influence over their parliament might be questioned.  The parliament continues to be stacked with Presbyterians who recall the close and ongoing relationship between the Australian protestant churches and their own.  While it is difficult for secular Australia to factor in the importance of religious affiliation in the events of the Pacific, it would be foolish to forget it.

Perhaps the greater danger to our relationship with Vanuatu is our failure to grant a proper hearing to the ni-Vanuatu response to our insecurities.  Articles in the Fairfax media were based on the unsubstantiated rumours of unnamed Australian foreign and defence personnel. These have been expressly denied by the ni-Vanuatu foreign minister Ralph Regenvanu. But the Fairfax articles downplayed or ignored Regenvanu’s denials to push their headlines.  It is a sad reminder that the goodwill of the 1970s between Australia and the people and government of Vanuatu has been forgotten in Canberra, and suggests that the real threat to an ongoing relationship between the two nations is Australian hubris.

Associate Professor Helen Gardner from Deakin University teaches twentieth century international history; race, science and religion in the formation or denial of citizenship in Australasia in the late 19th century and the decolonisation of Melanesia. Helen’s research is on local and global histories of race, mission, colonialism and decolonisation in Australia and the Pacific Islands throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For the Contemporary Histories Research Group, Helen leads research into contemporary and historical Pacific issues. In 2015, Helen and Patrick McConvell’s new publication Southern Anthropology: A History of Fison and Howitt’s Kamilaroi and Kurnai was released.