Melanesian Spearhead Group Plus ... Minus, Divided and Multiplied

Opinion – Crosbie Walsh

Fiji will host and chair the Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting on 22-23 July, and an invitation has been issued to other Pacific Island Forum nations to attend, making it MSG Plus.

Australian-based Prof. Brij Lal thinks Fiji is attempting to hijack the MSG in response to its suspension from the Pacific Forum, and he could well have a point, though hijack is too strong a word. Suspended from the Forum, excluded from PACER and PACER Plus negotiations almost certainly due to Australian and NZ persuasion, Fiji has merely struck back.

The Forum Melanesian nations were never totally happy with Australia and New Zealand's hard line on Fiji and on more than one occasion have sought a more conciliatory approach. Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tonga have also expressed doubts; and the north-western Micronesian states (Nauru, Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia) have said nothing. Only Samoa (for its own reasons) and Cook Islands and Niue (with close tries to NZ) have shown unquestioning support for the Australian and NZ position.

MSG Plus will give Island leaders the chance to talk with – and see what it happening in – Fiji without the overbearing presence of Australia and NZ. What the direct outcome will be is anyone's guess. Brij Lal thinks it will allow Fiji to promote its regional leadership, with Fiji seen to have stood up for itself in defence of its national sovereignty. Auckland-based political scientist Dr Sitiveni Ratuva thinks the "fragmented" Forum could see the MSG mobilise around Fiji, with a further shift in the region's geopolitical dynamics as Fiji, forsaken by its traditional antipodean friends, “Looks North” to Asia, most particularly China and India, for new friends.

Two other developments could also be weakening the "antipodean" position. The British High Commissioner's measured, conciliatory Queen's Birthday speech in Suva is one; and the other, heralded perhaps by American Samoa's earlier moves, are US actions, such as the easing of their travel ban and Fiji's upgrading following its stance on human trafficking, that suggest the Americans would welcome a more conciliatory approach. They appear to be becoming less reliant on Australia and New Zealand to act for them in the South Pacific.

For the moment is does seem the stand-off between the main protagonists in the fray could see a weakening of the Forum, and Australia and New Zealand's hold over Pacific Islands nations.

What does this mean for Fiji? A weakened Forum is in no one's best interests, despite its agenda being mainly driven by Australia and New Zealand, and the fact that it is already weakened by the exclusion of the Forum's most economically sophisticated Island nation, Fiji. Sooner or later Fiji will have to be readmitted to the Forum, PACER and PACER Plus negotiations, the Commonwealth, and access to EU and other international funding.

The sooner this occurs, the better. Fiji needs access to international loans, aid and grants, and much more local and foreign investment that will be easier to obtain when Australia and New Zealand moderate their stance. The question is when and how this will happen, and will MSG Plus be able to help.

My reading of the situation is that it won't be any time soon. Why? Because politicians and diplomats are no better equipped than any of us to deal with difficult situations. They allow their feelings, egos and “sacred cows” to blur their reason. And when there's two in tandem, they need to unyoke in order to re-engage with the third party. And that would be letting their mate down. What is best for Fiji, the Forum and Australia and New Zealand is not going to happen just because it makes sense.

So, the question over the next few weeks is whether the MSG Plus will be sufficiently supportive of Fiji to bring about a change in the Australian and New Zealand position. Once again, I doubt it. But it could have some influence, in combination with easing attitudes in the US, the UK and the EU.

Nations, like people, usually act in their own short-term interests. It takes a very confident person and nation to act on principle for very long. For this reason, the unwavering support of MSG Plus members cannot be taken for granted, even if they initially show some support for Fiji.

Australian trade and aid dominate most of them. Australia accounts for 42% of PNG's exports; 59% of its imports, and PNG received A$457 million worth of Australian aid (Total ODA) last year. The Solomons received A$226 million, Vanuatu A$66 million, and Kiribati, the only non-MSG member to so far signal its intention to come to Suva, A$23 million, a smaller amount to be sure but it represents about 20% of its GNP, and A$204 per head of population.

Such amounts are not to be sneezed at by poor countries. Fiji, by comparison, received $39 per capita and Australian ODA amounted to a bare 1% of GNP. Other figures are show below. All this is before NZAid money, particularly important in Niue, Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga, is thrown into the lolly scramble.

It will take a very principled stand by MSG Plus to counter these monetary interests. But they could do two things at no cost: they could tell the world what they see in Fiji, and so influence the Commonwealth, the UN, the US and EU, and they could urge Fiji to renew its invitation to all Forum members to visit Fiji to see for themselves. But whether this will make an difference, with McCully's and Smith's mind already made up, is anyone's guess. Fiji can only try.

While it is true that Fiji needs Australia and New Zealand (to ease the travel bans, help release EU and other aid money, and offer technical assistance to further the Roadmap and Elections in 2014), Australia and New Zealand should not forget that Fiji needs them far less than other Forum countries. Relative to most other Forum countries, its economy is large, diverse and fundamentally sound; it has a well developed private sector, a skilled urban labour force, and considerable potential for development in agriculture, forestry, ICT, mineral water, gold, fishing, manufacturing and tourism.

Pushed, Fiji can replace many of Australia's F$709 million and NZ's F$477 million worth of imports with imports from other countries. Asian imports already exceed New Zealand's (if Singapore's petroleum products are included) and are not far behind if they are excluded. In 2008 Chinese mainland imports totalled F$153 million, Hong Kong $72 million, Japan $82 million and India $123 million. It should also not be overlooked that Fiji's trade with Australia and NZ is very unbalance and not in Fiji's favour while Fiji's exports to the US ($179 million) and Japan ($64 million) are significant and the trade is much more balanced.

Australia and NZ have significant investments in Fiji, Australia's about A$40 billion. For the moment these are safe (except for the Murdoch-owned Fiji Times), but Chinese, Indian and other Asian countries have shown they are willing to lend to Fiji and their investments are increasing.

Fiji is also strengthening its position by establishing diplomatic relations with a number of other counties and with the Non-Aligned countries. Australia and New Zealand should no longer assume Fiji's unconditional support in international fora. And after the MSG Plus meets next month support from other Pacific nations may not be so readily forthcoming. Many already think Fiji is being bullied.

Dr Ratuva could well be right. The Forum could be fragmenting; the MSG may mobilise around Fiji on some issues, and the shift towards Asia in the region's geopolitical dynamics could well accelerate, leaving Australia and New Zealand where they need not have been had they allowed reality and reason and not emotion to guide their policies.

It will take a while before we get a clear picture of MSG Plus outcomes but we should get some inkling before the Forum meets in Port Vila in August. Those attending the meeting would do well to look carefully at the site of the new MSG Secretariat complex to be built by the Chinese.

Australian ODA per capita with ODA as a % of GNP shown in brackets (A$,2009). Niue $3,147 (44%), Nauru $1897 (44%), Tuvalu $719 (60%), Cook Is $421 (3%), Solomon Is $379 (34%), Vanuatu $304 (12%), Tonga $230 (11%), Kiribati $204 (20%), Samoa $181 (7%), FSM $97 (4%), PNG $76 (6%), Fiji $39 (1%).


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