Time for a New Policy Approach to Fiji?

Published in the Diplomatic Courier, the global affairs magazine that connects the diplomatic and policy establishment to the next generation of leaders in diplomacy and foreign policy. 

Written by Nicole Forrester and Eddie Walsh, Guest Contributors | 08 November 2011

Fiji_PMFor more than two decades, Fiji has endured a coup culture. During the latest military coup in 2006, Commodore Bainimarama removed Prime Minister Qarase’s duly elected democratic government. Since then, Australia has actively leveraged its bilateral and regional influence to urge Bainimarama’s Interim Government to hold free and fair elections. The regime's failure to return to democracy has led to Fiji’s suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth.


In addition, Australia has imposed autonomous sanctions, including suspension of ministerial contact and defence cooperation, an arms embargo, and visa restrictions on Interim Government ministers, senior public servants and appointees, ranking Fiji military members and coup supporters, and their families. This group represents, writ large, the resident Fijian leadership and policy elite. It likely also contains a large portion of Fiji’s next generation of leaders.

Fiji has responded by promoting policies aimed at making the country less dependent upon its traditional partners, particularly Australia and New Zealand. It has strengthened ties with non-Western powers, particularly China. It also has worked to transform the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) into a viable alternative to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). Finally, it has reached out to both ASEAN and India in order to further diversify its political and economic relationships.

There is growing criticism of the Australian policy towards Fiji. Critics assert that the hardline Australian position fails to account for the toxic nature of the Fijian Government that was removed from power in 2006. While not condoning the military’s use of force or alleged reports of human rights violations, opponents suggest that Australian policy should be moderated if for no other reason than the fact that it has failed to achieve its stated objectives. They argue that failure to change Australia’s policy approach risks pushing Fiji further from its traditional partners, undermining the West’s strategic interests in the South Pacific.

The Australian Government rejects such criticism outright.

Recently, the voice of the Fijian people captured centre stage in the debate when the Lowy Institute for International Policy conducted a survey of Fijian views on domestic and international issues. The survey reported that 66 percent of the Fijian people said Bainimarama was doing either a very good or good job.
Canberra branded the poll findings as absurd and without credibility - despite Lowy’s standing as the premier independent think tank in the region.

The Lowy Fiji Poll methodology and whether it was able to overcome perceived - or real - fears of intimation and reprisal for answering honestly deserves further discussion and investigation. However, in the absence of hard evidence to undermine the integrity of the poll or credibility of the pollsters, the Government’s condemnation of its findings is troubling. Senior Government officials’ claim to be “surprised” by increased criticism of Australian policy is also odd. If Australia’s policy approach isn’t working, vocal and public criticism is to be expected.

Overall, Australia’s policy has resulted in severe deterioration of its bilateral relationship with Fiji. This was clearly illustrated by Fiji’s declaration of the previous Acting High Commissioner Sarah Roberts persona non grata in July 2010. Now, Fiji regards Australia merely as a “donor country and post-colonial influence” rather than a partner in its future. This is not a position from which Australia can hope to influence Fiji to behave more democratically.

Given that Australia and its partners appear unwilling to employ more coercive tactics (such as military intervention) to achieve regime change, a new policy approach must be considered. The record demonstrates that Fiji can successfully mitigate the punishment that Australia seeks to impose through attempts at regime isolation. Does Canberra expect the current approach to deliver different results in the future?

If the Australian policy approach is not moderated, there is a serious risk of outside actors, including China and India, gaining a stronger strategic foothold in the South Pacific.

Bainimarama, now chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), is attempting to turn Fiji into the new leader of the South Pacific. As Australia and its partners continue with sanctions, it is no coincidence that the MSG has granted observer status to Asian powers such as Indonesia (somewhat counter-intuitively for the Melanesian West Papuans) and China. As Fiji looks more closely to Asian powers as development partners, Australia risks being left out in the cold.

One of the key soft power tools available to Australia is educational scholarships and student visas. How can Australia expect to positively influence the next generation of Fijian leaders when Canberra has sanctioned many of those who might apply for them by family association with the current regime? These are the future Fijian leaders that Australia should be targeting to demonstrate firsthand the importance and benefits of a broad and deep democratic society.

It is time for a strategic reassessment of Canberra’s policy. The Government must determine whether it should abandon value-based policies that have yet to achieve desired effects. It also must assess whether its current policy approach risks undermining its claim to lead in the South Pacific, a role the country has coveted for the better part of a century. Finally, it must work with its partners, including the United States, to gain better insight into the regional implications of its policy for Western strategic interests in the South Pacific.

Nicole Forrester is currently an Asia Pacific Leadership Fellow at the East-West Center. She is a former Australian diplomat and senior international relations adviser. Eddie Walsh is currently a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. He is a former foreign correspondent who covered Africa and the Asia-Pacific.
Photo: UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz
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Comments

Anonymous said…
Will Julia Gillard & Kevin Rudd change its hardline policy towards Fiji? No way Jose!

Why? For party political reasons. Given their history of policy failures and backflips, the Labour government knows very well that any change in their policy towards Fiji will be seized upon by Tony Abbott and his crew to portray this as yet another backflip, another sign of Labour incompetence etc.

Forget about the 'national interest', party politics rules in Australia. We have seen this demonstrated in parliament with the 'Malaysian Solution' on assylum seekers as well as the debate surrounding the carbon tax etc.

Whilst a more moderate policy towards Fiji makes a lot of sense, the reality is that party politics in Australia will never permit it. We will all have to wait for the next elections when the Liberal party retakes power and hope it will have the numbers to push through the required policy changes.
Remove the spin said…
Croz
Thanks for the UN photo of Bainimarama. I note the UN also allowed Gaddafi to mount the stage at the UN (which says more about the UN than Gaddafi). However I prefer the more recent photos of Gaddafi - dictator being dragged out of a sewer pipe, dictator being double tapped, dictator's corpse on show at a shopping centre. The latter photos better demonstrate the humiliating demise of a dictator don't you think?
Anonymous said…
@ Remove the Spin

Anyone who rejoices in the brutalisation of a another human being like what was done to Gaddafi must be sick!

Did you know that another 53 more corpses were found in Gaddafi's home town of Sirte, all with their hands tied behind their backs and with a bullet in the back of their heads?

Is this the sort of ugly and vicious triumphalism you think should apply in Fiji?
Remove the spin said…
@ anonymous

Only for dictators and their families. Wherever they may be. Most dictators get more than enough warning. And only bleat for 'engagement' when their game is up.

Did you express the same sentiments for the families of the Lockerbie victims? Or for the unarmed CRW soldiers tortured to beaten to death?
Little Fiji Distraction said…
@ Ugly and vicious 'triunfalismo'...?

Have you witnessed triumphalism at first hand in places other than Fiji? Have you spoken to those who survived Auschwitz/Belsen, Sobibor and Death Camps elsewhere? Cambodia, for instance? Or Bosnia and Croatia? If you had, you might fully understand how ugly, vicious summary executions occur. Judge not lest ye be judged!
Just yesterday, someone right here in Fiji told us how the Jews had merited their deaths and Hitler was therefore not responsible. The Jews had met their just desserts. They were speaking to the wrong person. When Israel strikes Iran, as is becoming increasingly likely and soon, then we shall know that 'Vengeance is Mine' saith the Lord. And the God of Moses will act through proxies. We had better be 'Ready and Waiting'. Our little Fiji Distraction will be nothing in comparison to what is coming in 2012.
Anonymous said…
@ Remove the Spin

Did you express any sentiments at the deaths of the five loyal soldiers who were shot at their desks by the CRW crew? Dont they deserve some recognition too? Or are you one-eyed that you refuse to acknowledge them?

The CRW killers were a rogue element within the military who turned on their own mates in the lowest act of betrayal. Their leader is now serving a life sentence together with the Fijian chief who instigated the muderous plot.
Anonymous said…
@ Little Fiji Distraction

You do not make sense. Post again after you have slept off the effects of all that alcohol you have been consuming.

As they say in Fiji "Sleep, Sleep, Sina"
sara'ssista said…
I say stay the course and have blockade, sea and air.If it had been done in the first month of the coups it would have ended in local riots, the militray marginalised and a new government. The only obvious flaw in AUS NZ strategy about not wanting to hurt the local people is that they are required to endure 8 long years of an unaccountable military regime, censorship, PER, arbitrary arrests and decrees a more divided country than ever and a slavish media that is still being blamed for their reporting.
Anonymous said…
Why should AUS and NZ come up to clean the mess for a messy country where messing by the Army has been entrenched in the political psyche of the nation. All these, at the instigation of the racist politicians who used the Army for backup to pursue their own racist agendas. Now that the military has turned against them, they seem to have seen the light and crave for restoration of democracy in Fiji. You advocate riots to settle the scores and yet not realise that the Army remains formidable and who are you going to riot against? The slight chance you get you will head for looting the shops and club the weak and frail and dispossess them, as in the past. Remember the looting that followed in 1987? Even the parents collected their kids to join in the loot and imagine what legacy they have left for their children to emulate. Churchgoing people who cry "praise the Lord", and "Halleluia" ritually on Sundays joined the loot and thanked the Lord for the opportunity. This is Fiji version of Christianity.
The Army was the bastion of the nationalists, chiefs and the Methodists and now that it has broken ranks, these are the people who are now beating their chests for the demise of democracy in Fiji.

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