Australia's Pacific Fantasy and a Diplomatic Bloody Nose
The Australian foreign policy establishment has been plunged into an agonising debate with the gradual realisation that Canberra’s long-standing hardline approach to events in Fiji has failed.
The bipartisan consensus between Labor and the Coalition that the diplomatic cold shoulder and targeted sanctions would eventually bring the Bainimarama regime to heel has been shattered.
And now a high-level public split has emerged that would have once been unthinkable between Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and the most prestigious Australian think-tank on Melanesian affairs – the Lowy Institute.
The head of the institute’s Myer Foundation Melanesian programme, Jenny Hayward-Jones, is a former diplomat who once shared Rudd’s enthusiasm to use every means, short of withdrawing humanitarian assistance, to bludgeon Frank Bainimarama into an immediate restoration of democracy.
But while Rudd is sticking to his guns – testily arguing that it is Bainimarama who has to change, not him – Haywood-Jones now accepts publicly that the tough love approach hasn’t worked.
In The Australian and elsewhere, she’s been calling for a new policy of engagement to help Fiji comply with Bainimarama’s long-stated intention to hold elections in 2014. It’s a humiliating about-face that has arguably come far too late.
Fiji has new friends and – judging from its recent criticism of Rudd’s alleged intransigence – doesn’t seem to care as much about re-engaging with Australia as some Canberra beltway insiders imagine.
Australia grossly underestimated Frank Bainimarama on two crucial fronts. One was his resolve to enforce his own version of tough love – to end the entrenched racism that has bedevilled Fijian democracy with an enforced period of dictatorship leading to fresh elections on the basis of one man, one vote for the first time.
Canberra has never fully grasped that the local version of democracy Bainimarama removed at gunpoint in 2006 wasn’t true democracy at all but a bastardised version that gave the indigenous Fijian majority a mandate to permanently disadvantage the 40 percent of non-indigenous citizens. That has made the moral case for an early poll without fundamental change much less than convincing to anyone prepared to examine the facts.
The second mistake was to overlook the capacity of Australia’s smaller neighbour to outwit and outgun it in both regional and global forums. Far from being the Pacific pariah Australia has tried to cast him as, Bainimarama is the current chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, the ceremonial figurehead of a regional body that represents the overwhelming majority of Pacific islanders.
Yes, the long-established Pacific Islands Forum has more members – including Australia and New Zealand – along with a parade of Polynesian and Micronesian mini and micro-states.
But take out Australia and New Zealand and who really speaks for most people in the islands? The MSG, which represents the biggest populations -Papua New Guinea and Fiji -plus the Solomons, Vanuatu and the Kanaks of New Caledonia, who are increasingly independent of their French colonial masters.
Two years ago, Australia and New Zealand used their diplomatic strength in the PIF to muscle Fiji out, even as Suva continues, somewhat bizarrely, to host the Forum Secretariat.
Yet now, the so-called pariah Bainimarama sits at the apex of a group that was designed to complement the Forum, not compete with it – as it will inevitably do under his leadership.
Never mind, the fault line that’s now become a chasm between the Melanesian “big men” of the MSG and the Polynesians aligned with Australia and New Zealand in the Forum. The MSG chair is sorely alienated from the Aussies and Kiwis and has a new and much more soothing voice in his ear – the Chinese.
Ever looking for avenues of influence, the emerging global superpower has strongly backed the MSG to the extent of funding its secretariat in the Vanuatu capital, Port Vila.
Simultaneously, Beijing has stepped up its support for Bainimarama’s regime with a string of development projects specifically aimed at tying Fiji more firmly to Beijing’s apron strings.
This is what is ringing alarm bells in Canberra and driving its volte face, the dawning realisation that isolating Fiji has not only been pathetically ineffectual but has been utterly counter-productive in giving the increasingly more assertive Chinese a stronger foothold on Australia’s back door.
Australian policy makers were in denial about this strategic threat for a long time, absurdly running the line that Beijing wasn’t seriously interested in Fiji. The rapid rise in the number of ducks being consumed in the Chinese restaurants of Suva suggested otherwise, not to mention Bainimarama’s frequent visits to Beijing and his fulsome praise for its assistance to Fiji.
Yet this is only half the story. Because the real strides for Fiji in recent months have come from a massive broadening of its support base in the wider international community.
Small nations like Fiji may be economically disadvantaged but their vote at the United Nations is as valuable as any other country that’s not a permanent member of the Security Council. Bainimarama saw the opportunity and seized it, hiring a triple Australian-New Zealand- Fiji citizen, Peter Thomson, as his UN ambassador with a brief to break out of Fiji’s traditional orbit and forge new relationships.
More than a year into the job, Thomson has launched formal diplomatic relations with a string of countries, accompanied by painstaking explanations that the dictatorship he represents is merely a necessary prelude to a more inclusive democracy.
This push culminates in Fiji being formally accepted into the 118-nation Non-Aligned Movement later this month, bringing it even closer to NAM members like India and Indonesia. Last month, Bainimarama opened Fiji’s first embassy in Jakarta and has accepted an Indonesian offer to assist it to prepare for the 2014 election.
In stark contrast to the public comments of Australian politicians, Indonesia’s President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, gave explicit support to Bainimarama’s so-called election roadmap. He said Fiji needed a home-grown democracy that would be sustainable.
“Democracy is a process, not an event, and certainly cannot be created through external dictate,” Yudhoyono said.
Even former Australian Foreign Minister,Alexander Downer concedes that Peter Thomson has been highly effective in pressing Fiji’s case at the UN and undermining Australia’s position.
Canberra’s long cherished ambition is for a temporary seat on the Security Council. Yet as Downer puts it: “ Fiji is working day and night in New York trying to sabotage our Security Council campaign. Rumour has it that they are having some success”.
It wasn’t meant to be like this, the minnow outmanoeuvring the whale.
Jenny Hayward-Jones at the Lowy Institute is now calling on Australia to “build and lead a new coalition with traditional partners ( New Zealand, Japan, the US and EU) and non-traditional partners ( such as Indonesia, India, South Korea and Papua New Guinea) to work with Fiji on a package of assistance for electoral and constitutional reform consistent with Fiji’s 2014 election timetable”.
In other words, let’s help Bainimarama achieve what he’s consistently said he would do all along. And let’s lead a coalition that includes a number of countries already working with Fiji quite happily without Australian “leadership”.
This is the bankrupt nature of Australian policy towards Fiji. First the moralising and hectoring, the overt attempts to damage the country and its economy, the dawning realisation of failure, the inevitable rollback, capitulation and the fantasy of leading from the front when events have long overtaken you.
Fijians of all races are entitled to wonder what on earth the last four and a half years have been all about when it comes to Australia. Except that the regional bully, not the local dictator, ended up with the bloody nose.
Graham Davis is an independent Fiji-born journalist and publisher of the political blog Grubsheet.