By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Vanuatu, at the centre of strategic rivalry between China and western countries in the Pacific Islands, has plunged into political crisis, with its prime minister to face a no-confidence vote in parliament next week.
Opposition leader Bob Loughman, a former prime minister who drew Vanuatu closer to China until his government lost a snap national election in 2022, lodged notice of the no-confidence vote with parliament on Thursday evening with the signatures of 29 lawmakers, enough to win a vote.
Prime Minister Alatoi Kalsakau, who leads a coalition government, said on Friday he "remains confident" in comments broadcast by Vanuatu television station VBTC.
Kalsakau, who faced a backlash from some politicians after signing a defence pact with Australia, said the next seven days of political negotiations were "critical days".
A parliament official said parliament would reconvene next Thursday for the no-confidence motion. If the motion is successful, a new prime minister will be installed by a vote of lawmakers.
The offices of Kalsakau and Loughman did not respond to requests for comment, and the reasons for the no-confidence motion are unclear.
A week ago, French President Emmanuel Macron made the first visit to Vanuatu by a French leader since war leader Charles de Gaulle, and gave a speech warning about a "new imperialism" in the Pacific, in comments taken to refer to China.
China has been a major infrastructure lender to Vanuatu, where it donated the parliament building, stadiums and prime minister's office. Vanuatu's largest creditor is China's EXIM bank, accounting for a third of its debt, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Vanuatu, a former French and British territory, gained independence in 1980.
The United States and its allies are seeking to deter Pacific Islands nations from establishing security ties with Beijing, a rising concern amid tension over Taiwan, and after China signed a security pact with Solomon Islands.
Washington wants to open an embassy in Vanuatu as part of its re-engagement with the region, however the U.S. Coast Guard has been blocked from entering port this year on illegal fishing patrols.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)