Switch off the Autopilot in the Pacific
Canberra's stance on the Fiji crisis requires an urgent rethink
Michael O'Keefe in the Sydney Morning Herald
July 16, 2010
The easy option is to ramp up the rhetoric without much changing sanctions against the regime of Frank Bainimarama, the naval officer who seized power four years ago in a bloodless coup. This would be predictable and lazy. To escalate the sanctions is an option, but one that both John Howard and Kevin Rudd eschewed when faced by similar belligerent actions from Suva. The unstated option is to end or dramatically modify sanctions - and this should not be taken away from the table.
Despite some early optimism from Canberra, Suva and Wellington, the policy of the previous government did nothing to reverse the coup.In fact, Rudd substantially followed Howard. Gillard is likely to do the same.
This sums up Australia's historical approach to the South Pacific; policy autopilot until a crisis fills the broadsheets, followed by orthodox responses that do not really work and then a return to business as usual.
In short, there has been a policy vacuum from Canberra since the initial response to the coup, despite several inflammatory escalations and signs of an emerging humanitarian crisis developing on the ground.
The expulsion is just one example of brinkmanship from Bainimarama. Others include the draconian Public Emergency decrees, the abrogation of the constitution, earlier diplomatic expulsions and a spate of restrictive media laws.In each case, Australia's response has been public criticism, but no escalation of sanctions.
Meanwhile, Australia's policy towards Fiji has achieved none of its stated aims; democracy has not been restored, elections have been postponed and individual rights and freedoms curtailed.
And from Bainimarama's recent statements, it seems that even the tenuous road map to free elections in 2014 may be scrapped. The only diplomatic success has been cementing our place as the dominant regional power - a ''sheriff'' in our own right. The Pacific Islands Forum, the UN, EU, US, Britain and NZ have all supported Australian leadership. But even this success is eroding.
The capacity of the Pacific Islands Forum to act as a regional voice is being challenged, not least by Suva's bid to expand the Melanesian Spearhead Group.Cracks are also appearing in hitherto unwavering support from the US and Britain. And the most worrying development is that for every back-step we take, China strides forward.
What is needed is a fresh approach. We shouldn't reward a dictator, but Australia's ''smart'' sanctions have failed to punish Suva sufficiently to encourage compromise. Bainimarama has instituted a ''Look North'' policy that has diluted the impact of the sanctions. Travel bans have been inconvenient, but direct flights are now leaving Fiji for Asia. Cutting off military co-operation is a snub, but officers still train in European and Asian colleges (including China). Soldiers still earn status working on lucrative UN operations. Sporting sanctions never really took hold.
The maintenance of the sanctions status quo is now damaging Australia's strategic interests in the region and beyond.Sanctions are meant to target the regime and there is no sign that elites are suffering. Ordinary Fijians, however, are hurting regardless of ethnicity. If there is a divide now, it's between winners and losers, between urban and rural Fijians, between landowners and landless Fijians of Indian origin and internal migrants.
GDP has declined, but it fails to measure welfare. Most socio-economic and development indicators are in reverse. It has been estimated that poverty is higher than before independence in 1970. Suva's 20 per cent devaluation of the dollar has not been matched by real growth in incomes. Access to costly services such as healthcare have also been curtailed. There is a rise of subsistence agriculture. In short, human security is being challenged.This dire situation can be partly explained by the impact of the global financial crisis on small island states with fragile economies. It also reflects economic mismanagement by the regime.
However, the situation may also be attributed to the response of investors and tourists to imposition of sanctions, travel warnings and tense diplomatic exchanges. Sanctions may be contributing to the very situation they were designed to avoid. In truth, we can't disaggregate the factors. If sanctions are part of the problem, and a humanitarian crisis is developing, and if we claim that the South Pacific is our ''patch'', then we must do something to end the impasse.
The stubborn maintenance of sanctions may no longer be in Australia's interests. But that is for the PM to decide.
Dr Michael O'Keefe is a senior lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University.
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