Vanuatu's Diplomatic Dancing Shoes

During the last month, Vanuatu, of all places, has continued its descent into the diplomatic arena by apparently flip-flopping on the recognition of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Vanuatu, a cluster of islands in the Pacific with a population of 209,000, which would fill only 20 percent of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, has thus once again engaged in a round of diplomatic horse-trading with an aim of securing the best possible payoff.

On May 23, it appeared as if Vanuatu had joined Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru as the fifth country to officially recognize Abkhazia as an independent state. In the Vanuatua capital of Port Vila, former Prime Minister Sato Kilman signed a pact authorizing the commencement of diplomatic relations with the Abkhaz Republic. Abkhazian officials had pushed for this step with their full court press for recognition spearheaded with support from Moscow.

However, the story hardly ends here. In mid-June, Vanuatu's representative at the United Nations in New York seemingly contradicted the announcement by indicating that reports of Abkhazia's recognition were false. A few days after this, on June 17, the Vanuatu foreign minister Alfred Carlot, however, publicly apologized for the UN ambassador's remarks and stressed that this was a "miscommunication" within the foreign ministry.

Carlot subsequently released a statement reaffirming Abkhazia's recognition while simultaneously placing caveats on it in an attempt to salvage the diplomatic relationship with Georgia. The opaque exchange has come to define Vanuatu's diplomatic narrative, which can be best described as a series of business negotiations.

The official statement, released on the government's website, notes that Vanuatu "conducts an open foreign policy and is amongst other members of the international community in eradicating colonialism from the face of this planet. Vanuatu is neutral; our recognition of Abkhazia does not in any way mean that we cannot have diplomatic relations with the Republic of Georgia." The statement continued by revealing that Vanuatu would send a "roving ambassador" to the region within the year.

In a strange sequence of events, almost immediately after the withdrawal of recognition was repudiated by the Foreign Minister, the government in Port Vila again changed its mind. The current Prime Minister, Edward Natapei, reversed the former government's decision and spurned political leaders in Abkhazia by articulating that Vanuatu's position was that Abkhazia is a breakaway province within Georgia's sovereign territory. ?

While this narrative may seem unusual, it has become a common tact in the diplomatic tool kit of Pacific nations. Nauru recognizes an independent Abkhazia as well as South Ossetia, another breakaway republic from Georgia. Taiwan – while a dramatically different situation from the Georgian republics – also has gained recognition from much of the Pacific. Vanuatu became embroiled in a similar identity crisis with Taiwan – first establishing relations and then rescinding its announcement at the behest of the stronger state – this time China.

Government officials in Port Vila have not forgotten the Taiwan incident and remain cognizant on how embarrassing these charades can be for the host state. From 1982 to 2004, Vanuatu had diplomatic relations with China. In 2004, then Prime Minister Serge Vohor, with significant financial aid pledges from the government in Taipei, signed a communiqué that recognized Taiwan.

However, it was merely a matter of weeks before Vohor's government was brought down as a result of the controversy and the new government overturned the communiqué, pleasing Beijing and leaving egg on the face of those in Taipei. China responded amicably by signing an economic cooperation agreement with Vanuatu that promised millions of dollars in development assistance. Moreover, China agreed to grant Vanuatu "approved destination status" which pegged the Pacific nation as a tourist destination for the emerging middle-upper class in China.

The Taiwan incident sheds light on Vanuatu's calculus on recognizing Abkhazia. The Caucasian republic is thousands of miles from the Pacific and there are no historical or cultural ties between the two. There is however the potential for financial gain. Vanuatu's target through its recognition was not officials in Sukhumi but rather those in Moscow. Recalling Nauru's – another micro state in the Pacific, with a 2011 population of fewer than 10,000 - financial payoff for recognizing Abkhazia (US$50 million in aid from Russia), the government in Port Vila positioned itself to force the issue between Russia and Georgia. While the subsequent withdrawal of Abkhazian recognition will result in a loss of benefits from Moscow, it will surely lead to a "pay-off" of sorts from Tbilisi.

Pacific micro-economies, like Vanuatu, continue to make cost-benefit analyses and reach a calculating conclusion that it is in their national interest (or their treasury's national interest) to recognize break away states. While diplomatic officials from Vanuatu may suffer a "credibility gap", they have succeeded in their grander strategic aim to secure additional development assistance by entering into the recognition game.

No details of Vanuatu's rapprochement with Georgia have been revealed, but there was clearly a price to the reversal on Abkhazia (as there was with Taiwan). This is Vanuatu's tangible victory and the proof that horse-trading diplomacy still works in some circles.??

Jonathan Berkshire Miller is a public sector analyst on the Asia-Pacific region, writing on issues relating to nuclear nonproliferation, arms control, counterterrorism and intelligence.