Pacific unity threatened by impasse over Fiji

  • Richard Herr
  • From: The Australian
  • January 28, 2010 12:00AM

KEVIN Rudd is halfway through his term as chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum, an association of Pacific Islands states along with Australia and New Zealand.

It has not been an easy tenure. Tensions within the forum have grown since Fiji was suspended from the forum’s councils on May 2 last year over Fiji’s failure to commit to holding elections by the end of the year.

Using the forum to impose sanctions on Fiji has had an impact on the Pacific Islands’ regional system dysfunctionally not least because Fiji is host state to the forum secretariat.

The damage will only escalate if Fiji is to remain suspended from the councils of the forum through to 2014. Australia’s position is that the suspension will continue until there is an effective commitment to elections to restore parliamentary democracy.

The Fiji government headed by Commander Frank Bainimarama is adamant it has given this through its July 2009 political roadmap, which culminates with elections in 2014.It could be argued that Australia’s role in managing the regional agenda will be seriously diminished if its term as chair leaves Fiji still atop the in-tray of unfinished business and still estranged from the region.

I have put this argument in a report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The exclusion of the Fiji government from regional meetings and from trade negotiations such as Pacific Area Closer Economic Relations Plus negotiations is causing ructions in the region. This concern is especially important as PACER, and the add-on PACER Plus, are meant to be at the heart of Canberra’s economic policy in the Pacific Islands

Moreover, the Bainimarama government has gone on its own offensive to resist the pressure through the forum, which it sees as being generated in Canberra and Wellington.

In particular, Bainimarama has appealed for support from the sub-regional Melanesian Spearhead Group, with some success. Neither Australia nor New Zealand is a member of the MSG.

This tactic seems to be bearing some fruit. Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, Michael Somare, acting as spokesman for the MSG leaders after a mid-October meeting last year, said the MSG would work to attempt to change Australia and New Zealand’s general approach to the Bainimarama government.

Bainimarama recently suggested that as Fiji will host this year’s MSG meeting, he could invite the island members of the forum not in the MSG to attend as observers.

His intention is clear: to use the MSG to help drive a wedge through the forum and make it a less useful mechanism for pressure against the Fiji government. Australia needs to take this risk seriously.

Tuvalu explained its defection at Copenhagen from the line on climate change that Australia orchestrated at the Cairns meeting of the forum by arguing that consensus was necessary in the forum but it did not have to agree with it elsewhere.

The implication of the Tuvalu interpretation of consensus is hugely significant. It undermines the reliance on forum decisions by implying that members prefer to avoid embarrassment than show disagreement even when they will act against these decisions outside the forum.

The Bainimarama government has repeatedly argued that its neighbours have been “bullied” into agreeing to measures against it. It notes that none but Australia and New Zealand has supported these decisions with bilateral sanctions against Fiji.

If the decisions of the forum are as fragile as Tuvalu implied in Copenhagen, it may well have a case or, at least, be able to argue this position among those forum members that do not feel as strongly as Canberra and Wellington.

The regional system is vital to the small states of the Pacific Islands on so many levels that it should not be used to accentuate the asymmetries of power among its members.

Kamisese Mara, the first prime minister of Fiji, was instrumental in inviting Australia and New Zealand to join the forum as equals in 1971 because he believed the two would assist the islands to cope with the enormous power from outside the region.

He later kept Fiji out of the MSG because he believed that such a “sub-regional” body would divide the region and weaken it against the extra-regional forces.

Although Fiji did join the MSG about decade later (under prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka), Mara’s concerns about a fractured region are closer to reality today but the pressures are being generated from within the region, not from outside.

The significantly altered geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific area are being played out in our region as well. These new interests and pressures should not find the region weakened by internal division.

The foreign ministers of Fiji and New Zealand recently met in Nadi to find a practical way of re-engaging.

There are several reasons why Australia should consider the lead of New Zealand, not the least of which is the importance of keeping the regional house united.

The ASPI report argues that for a more effective re-engagement with Fiji to occur, there is a need to eliminate some of the more important irritants that have festered for the past three years.

The political cleansing of the wounds cannot be done alone, naturally. The Bainimarama government will have to contribute its part.

Nevertheless, undertaking such a course might then get relations between Australia and Fiji on to a more productive track and help preserve a reasonably united region.

Richard Herr is an honorary research associate in the School of Government at the University of Tasmania. He is also deputy director of the Centre for International and Regional Affairs at the University of Fiji, where he is adjunct professor of Pacific Governance and Diplomacy


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