Kilman blazing after being elected as Vanuatu’s new Prime Minister

  • Kilman was chosen as Prime Minister of Vanuatu after political unrest related to Vanuatu’s stance on China and Western powers.
  • Kilman and his party are convinced that a bilateral agreement signed with Australia could impact Vanuatu’s political stance. 
  • Kilman is looking to maintain close ties with China.
Sato Kilman at the UN in New York in 2015. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Why is Kilman’s heat level Blazing?

Answer: He was elected as Prime Minister during a period of political upheaval in Vanuatu.

On September 4, Sato Kilman, a four-time Vanuatu Prime Minister, was elected. This followed the removal of the former Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau, who had assumed leadership of the government just nine months earlier. This came after Vanuatu’s Supreme Court ruled that Kalsakau had lost a parliamentary no-confidence vote, triggered by opposition leader Bob Loughman’s petition, which criticized Kalsakau for entering into a security agreement with Australia. 

This was a notable factor in his removal since Vanuatu had adhered to a longstanding policy of maintaining neutrality in its relations with both Western nations and China for many decades. In fact, throughout the duration of the Cold War, it maintained its neutral position and since 1983, they have been an official member of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Kilman’s election win has greatly increased his temperature. Indeed, it is solely due to this newfound position of power that the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) has been able to obstruct Kalsakau’s proposed changes and advance its own agenda. A key point of contention for the PPP is the security agreement signed with Australia in December. Kilman’s party is convinced that this agreement could endanger Vanuatu’s neutral stance and potentially impede their access to development aid from China, currently the largest external creditor of the nation.

What is changing Kilman’s temperature? 

Answer: Kalsakau’s decision to sign a bilateral deal with Australia caused a political crisis in Vanuatu. 

The primary reason for Kilman’s rise in temperature can be primarily attributed to Kalsakau’s decision to sign a bilateral agreement with Australia. This agreement was intended to bolster military and law enforcement cooperation, enhance disaster relief and humanitarian efforts, and foster cybersecurity collaboration with Australia. The challenge with this accord lies in its timing, as it unfolded amidst increasing tensions between China and Western nations in the region.

Indeed, over the past few months, Western countries, especially the US, have been actively discouraging Pacific Island nations from entering into security agreements or alliances with China. In May, the US inked a new bilateral defense cooperation pact with one of Vanuatu’s neighbors, Papua New Guinea. Shortly thereafter, established strategic agreements with Palau and Micronesia. Furthermore, negotiations are ongoing for a similar arrangement with the Marshall Islands. Meanwhile, Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands. And they attempted to secure a trade agreement with 10 Pacific Island nations. However, that fell through last year. 

In the midst of these escalating tensions, Vanuatu’s decision to sign a bilateral agreement with Australia, seemingly deviating from the country’s policy of neutrality, added to the political turmoil. This backdrop ultimately contributed to Kilman’s election as Prime Minister.

What is driving Kilman? 

Answer: Kilman is looking to maintain China as a close ally. 

Kilman is not inclined to isolate a crucial regional player like China. Examining his past actions during his previous tenure as Prime Minister, it appears that he favored steering Vanuatu towards closer ties with China. In 2012, he was the center of attention attention when he expelled all Australian police officers, a move reportedly driven by perceived “disrespectful” treatment in Australia. 

During his three-year stint as Prime Minister, he held a historic meeting with China’s esteemed leader, Xi Jinping, where he committed to enhancing relations between the two nations. His present strategic approach may well be influenced by these earlier foreign policy decisions.

He aims to reestablish robust ties with China. In fact, before Kilman’s election, Vanuatu’s leadership had become increasingly receptive to Chinese political influence, engaging in negotiations and agreements across various domains such as technology, energy, infrastructure, healthcare, and economic development. A noteworthy milestone occurred in 2021 when Vanuatu and China signed a multi-million-dollar bilateral grant agreement focused on economic and technological cooperation.

Kilman may hope to profit from China’s willingness to invest in Vanuatu’s development initiatives. Economic opportunities created by Chinese investments can result in the creation of jobs, the improvement of infrastructure, and economic expansion, which can be politically advantageous. 

Maintaining a close relationship with China not only holds economic advantages but could also prove pivotal for Vanuatu’s future. This is especially significant considering the ongoing climate crisis. Vanuatu faces significant threats, having endured two concurrent cyclones earlier this year and requiring assistance from all quarters. 

On March 29, the country’s government submitted a resolution to the United Nations, seeking “climate justice of epic proportions.” Last month, China pledged increased support for the Pacific Islands in their battle against climate change. Isolating China may entail losing crucial support that Vanuatu urgently requires in the face of climate change.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The political turmoil currently unfolding in Vanuatu serves as a microcosm of the larger geopolitical tensions playing out in the Pacific region. 

As Vanuatu experiences leadership changes and political instability, it becomes a microcosm of the struggles faced by many small island governments in maintaining stability and asserting their interests amidst global power dynamics.

One aspect of these crises is the delicate balance between regional and global interests. Small island nations in the Pacific like Vanuatu often find themselves caught between the competing agendas of major powers. They must navigate complex diplomatic relationships to secure economic aid, infrastructure development, and trade agreements, all while maintaining their sovereignty and cultural identity.

The situation in Vanuatu illustrates the intricate dynamics of superpowers in the region, as they seek to expand their influence through diplomatic ties and bilateral agreements. This ongoing scenario highlights how the decisions made by small island nations can play a crucial role in shaping the regional balance of power.

Amy Ng’eno

R&A Intern