Fiji's New Diplomacy

Time to Rethink When 'Bad Guy' is King of Pacific
By Graham Davis*
Source: The Australian/PacNews

Australia’s impotence in influencing events in its own back yard is being demonstrated in dramatic fashion this week as Fijian leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama fulfils his long-held ambition to assume the chairmanship of the Melanesian Spearhead Group.

All the other Melanesian leaders - from Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, Vanuatu plus the Kanak FLNKS from New Caledonia - are joining him for the group's summit in Suva tomorrow. It's also being attended by representatives from Indonesia, East Timor and - strangely - the European Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

The humiliation for Australia and New Zealand comes with the authority Bainimarama will now wield as the leader of a virile regional grouping - backed by the Chinese - that's increasingly regarded as more important than the long-established Pacific Islands Forum.

Australia and New Zealand got Fiji suspended from the forum two years ago because of Bainimarama's 2006 coup. But now the regional “bad guy” gets to be the top guy in the MSG, as chairman of an alternative grouping that's much more representative of the Pacific's biggest players.

Last year, Australia derailed Bainimarama's first attempt to lead the MSG by persuading the then chairman, Vanuatu's former prime minister Edward Natapei, to cancel the Suva summit, where he was scheduled to hand over the leadership.

But Bainimarama succeeded in turning humiliation into triumph by recasting last year's MSG meeting as an “Engaging with Fiji” summit and attracting every Melanesian leader other than Natapei, including Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare. The Fijian leader was thus able to claim that Australia and New Zealand had “egg on their faces”.

Since then, Bainimarama has used Fiji's diplomatic influence and his keen sense of Melanesian politics to marginalise Natapei and rely on the Vanuatu leader's chief political opponent, Sato Kilman, to destroy him.

Much of Kilman's campaign against Natapei was based on casting him as a man prepared to betray a Melanesian brother in exchange for more than $60 million in Australian aid.

Natapei has since been consigned to the electoral dustbin and Kilman thereby removed the one remaining impediment to Bainimarama assuming the leadership of the MSG. Australia and New Zealand - the region's big boys - lost both the battle and the war. Even members of Australia's foreign affairs establishment now concede that on top of his 2006 coup, Bainimarama has scored another in securing the MSG chair.

Jenny Hayward-Jones, a former Canberra diplomat who is director of the Myer Foundation Melanesian Program at the Lowy Institute, was once in the front line of the cheer squad urging Australia and New Zealand to apply the strictest sanctions against Bainimarama. Now she is describing the Fijian leader’s victory in securing the MSG leadership as “a real coup” and urging a policy re-evaluation towards Fiji.

Hayward-Jones has criticised Australian Foreign Minister and deposed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who she says is presiding over “an erosion of Australian influence” in the Pacific.

Official Australian attitudes on how to deal with the Fijian leader are split between the hardliners and those like Hayward-Jones, who argue that the policy isn't working and is, in fact, counterproductive in driving Bainimarama into the arms of the Chinese.

Beijing isn't just getting a significant strategic and economic foothold in Fiji with the deterioration of Bainimarama's relationship with Canberra and Wellington - the Chinese are also funding the group's secretariat in the Vanuatu capital, Port Vila.

These developments present a clear and present danger to Australia's interests in the region.

But is there any sign of policy change? Evidently not. During a visit to Wellington at the weekend, Rudd was clearly irritated when asked by TVNZ if it was time for both countries to revise their attitude towards Fiji.

Rudd said there was often a tendency to focus on what Australian and New Zealand diplomacy should be doing rather than putting the onus on the Bainimarama regime. It was the Fijian leader, he said, who had to change.

So what Canberra insiders have long termed the “Rudd block” in achieving any change in current policy towards Fiji continues, whatever the strategic pitfalls.

For his part, Bainimarama doesn't care. The triple Australian-Fiji-NZ citizen he hired as his UN representative, Peter Thomson, has forged a new network of international relationships for Fiji outside the Anzac orbit, including membership of the Non Aligned Movement.

Thomson has also been a prime influence behind the formation of a formal independent Pacific voting bloc at the UN, which goes a long way to explaining the presence of Luxembourg at the MSG summit. This tiny European state has the kind of big aspirations that Bainimarama finds irresistible, way beyond its membership of the EU, where it could be a crucial ally for Fiji. Like Australia, Luxembourg wants a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.

And how do you get that? Well, you go lobbying. So while Rudd traverses the length and breadth of Africa trying to secure Australia's seat, a group of suave Europeans has appeared in the South Seas to roger the Aussies in their own backyard.

It's a funny old world - and Bainimarama is getting the last laugh.

* Graham Davis is Fiji-born journalist who blogs on grubsheet.blogspot.com

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