Australian policy on Fiji “dysfunctional”, says report

Fiji's military leader and Prime Minister, Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama. Photo: Selwyn Manning

Pacific Scoop:
Commentary – By Graham Davis

The folly of Australian policy towards Fiji is at the centre of a damning new landmark report that suggests the United States has lost confidence in Canberra’s ability to influence events in the Pacific and counter rising Chinese influence in the region.
It calls for the immediate and unconditional lifting of regional sanctions against Fiji and for Australia to “repair its relationship at the highest level” by re-engaging with the Bainimarama regime through the Pacific Islands Forum.
“It is well past the time to treat this festering regional wound”, it declares.
The report – covering all aspects of Australia’s relations with the Pacific and entitled “Our Near Abroad” – has been issued by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), an independent, government-funded think tank set up in 2001 to advise Canberra on its defence and strategic policy options.
Direct challenge to Australian Government policy
The conclusions of its authors – Professor Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin – are bound to stick in the craw of Australia’s foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, for they present a direct challenge to the entire edifice of current Pacific policy.
The report details in stark terms the extent to which Australia has been isolated in the region and is losing its ability to influence “collective decision making in the South Pacific”.
It cites as evidence the fact that eleven Pacific Island members of the United Nations have formed a voting bloc that excludes Australia and that the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) – which also excludes Australia – has backed fellow member Fiji against Australian sanctions.
It calls on Australia to “regather the threads of regional leadership” with a comprehensive range of measures that include repairing its relationship with Fiji, a country it describes as being at “the heart of the Pacific Islands regional system” as the principal transportation, communications and diplomatic hub.
“The region cannot survive without its heart” – the report says – describing Fiji’s suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum as having “seriously changed regional dynamics”.
ASPI warns of the consequences of Fiji seeking new international relationships because of its breach with Australia and New Zealand over Frank Bainimarama’s 2006 coup.
China the “significant beneficiary”
It says Fiji’s membership of the Non Aligned Movement  “underscores Suva’s more aggressive pursuit of South-South dialogue, specifically to reduce reliance on its traditional friends, including Australia.
“Whether intended or not, China has been a significant beneficiary of this development as a leading state in the NAM”, the report concludes.
The authors suggest that Fiji has outwitted Australia to the detriment of its national interests in the Pacific and the strength and cohesion of regional organisations such as the Pacific Forum .
“The importance of Fiji for the new geopolitics of the region is that it’s actively challenging Australia’s privileged position in the regional system. There are many reasons why Australia should repair relations with Fiji, but the deleterious effects of the current contretemps on the Pacific Islands Forum are the key because they cascade through the regional system”.
The report cites  “the impossibility” of concluding the current PACER Plus trade negotiations and “the rift between the Pacific Islands Forum and the Melanesian Spearhead Group”, which have taken opposing views on Fiji.
Sanctions “impractical” and “dysfunctional”
It goes on to say that “Forum-related sanctions (against Fiji) are being subverted by other organisations, including the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC),  the Forum Fisheries Agency and even RAMSI,  the billion dollar Australian intervention in Solomon Islands.
It describes those sanctions as “impractical” and says “they have proved dysfunctional for Australia and for its image in the region”.
It also says the delay in repairing the relationship has been costly, partly because attitudes in Fiji about the need for Australian assistance appear to have hardened”.
As well as the lifting of sanctions, the report calls on Australia to follow New Zealand’s lead in re-establishing ministerial contact. More controversially, it also calls for the re-establishment of Australia’s ties with the Fiji military to deal with maritime security, border protection and transnational crime.
ASPI goes on to examine the divergence in approach between the United States and Australia towards Fiji, exemplified last week when Washington’s new ambassador in Suva, Frankie Reed, visited Frank Bainimarama in the prime minister’s office.
No Australian or New Zealand head of mission has had any direct contact with the Fijian leader since his coup five years ago.
The report quotes Ms Reed as having described Fiji’s position in the Pacific as “unique” and said it was “a key focal point in America’s larger regional engagement with the South Pacific”.
US seeking “more direct” approach
In stark contrast with the Australian position, the ambassador said the United States sought a “more direct engagement with Fiji’s government to encourage the restoration of democracy” within the regime’s stated timetable of September 2014.
The ASPI report says that while “the US is reluctant to openly express criticism of Australia’s handling of regional relations, it’s clear there are genuine doubts about Australia’s capacity to lead islands’ opinion on relations with China”.
It concludes that “the US is taking on a more direct role in protecting its own interests in the region, just as it did in the mid to late 1980s when it felt that managing Cold War challenges in the Pacific Islands was beyond the capacity of Australia and New Zealand”.
Graham Davis is an investigative journalist and media commentator. His articles are frequently published by Pacific Scoop. He publishes the blog Grubsheet where this commentary was originally published

Comments

The Ultimate Sin said…
The US 'more direct approach' is self-evidently the Way to Go? It is being applied in Burma aka Myanmar as we write. It has been applied to N. Korea. Difficult to say if that has worked or not but if the lives of starving millions are saved through application of emergency food aid, then that is justified.

If people in Fiji and their dependants are obliged to be cut down in their pension payments to $300 and below per month, we shall be requiring Food Aid and soon. Within three months. Treating human beings in this manner is unconscionable. Put in place first the required safety nets together with Accident Compensation Scheme (No Fault): immediately set in place Disability Allowances which are liveable and test twice annually to ALL who qualify. These should be means tested but they should still apply at a lower rate to those of better means.

Quite telling anyone they are in a Win Win: this does not exist. The educated and the street-wise know this already. It sounds and is dishonest. In lieu, apply the above and ensure that grandparents who support grandchildren on their pensions are fully aided in the extra financial responsibility they carry. There is no Win Win for them.

Never permit your people to lose hope. That is the ultimate sin in Statecraft.
Anonymous said…
A recent photo of the US Ambassador, Frankie Reed, sitting with Frank, says it all. On the other hand the Australia and NZ high commissioners to Fiji have, since Dec 2006, played a cat and mouse game with the Fiji government - they avoided face to face meetings with Frank, side-stepped him at cocktail parties etc, not seeking to engage. They also went around undermining the Fiji Government. And so it was no surprise that they were kicked out of Fiji thus losing any opportunity they may have had to influence events in Fiji. They made their bed and now they have to lie in it.

The new US attitude as evident in Reed's engagement with Frank and Hillary Clinton's most recent visit to Myanmar (Burma)etc is good for Fiji and the region. It signals their desire to promote their interests more directly rather than leave it to their 'deputy sheriff' (Australia) to mess things up. We need the US presence to balance the growing Chinese influence.
Wrong sense of priorities? said…
The time has arrived for the Universal Old Age Pension to be brought in. Fiji will afford it. It has afforded so many other less pressing provisions in the past? At this time of global austerity, it MUST be introduced and it should apply across the board from 65 years on. Health provision must also be available to all who have turned 65 years on. There should be a pay-as-you-go scheme for those who wish to access private care. But the provision for healthcare for the elderly should be universal. Do not attempt to suggest this cannot be afforded. You are buying Airbus 330s and still paying too many Civil Servants to under-perform. The sense of priorities is all wrong.
Ho Hum said…
Ho Hum. Same old bleating. Same old groupies. One would think that after 5 years of beating the same tired drum they might look for an alternative approach?
Gutter Press said…
There has been a great deal written about Chinese involvement in Fiji, usually in glowing terms about the Chinese being Fiji’s friends. Yet most of the commentators go on to say that it’s a good job that Chinese influence is being countered by the US.

This is an unwarranted insult to the Chinese as ‘thanks’ for their largesse. No writers have suggested that it’s a good job that Australian/ New Zealand influence is now being countered by the Chinese.

This infers that the writers feel, without saying so, that there is something worrying about China’s involvement in Fiji – yet at the same time being perfectly happy to accept China’s largesse with open arms.

This smacks of hypocrisy at best. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

At its worst this attitude is simply blind ignorance, since both Australia and NZ are still actively involved in providing financial assistance to various projects in Fiji. They just choose not to do so via official government channels and donate their aid directly to the various NGO’s and sporting bodies.
Anonymous said…
This latest report flies in the face of the pro-democracy people in Australia (Fraenkel, Mara, Baledrokadroka, Kaitani etc) who have encouraged Australia and other governments to adopt a 'scorched earth' policy towards Fiji. It is clear from their recent conference in Melbourne that they are all SDL apologists who want to return their snouts to the trough.
Anonymous said…
Was there ever a doubt as to what these guys stood for? Such democrats pose the greatest danger to democracy because their lies are believed. What happened to Tevita Mara - has he swum back to Tonga? Australia would do Fiji a great favor if such characters are given residence in Australia.
sara'ssista said…
it is great that comments are relating fiji to the handling of burma etc , excellent. At least we all accept that it is Fiji who is out of step with the rest of the world , not the other way around.Spare me the 'we are so misunderstood' whinings please
flyhalf said…
The fallacy that has been revealed is the fact that, the Trans-Tasman bullies and to an extension the ANZUS alliance have historically used these think-tanks which have been the recipients of funding by several front organizations.

The report underscores the flawed reality that, most regional Governments who subscribe to these advice; have under-estimated the stupidity of these think-tanks and the academics and re-cycled politicians/ civil servants within it, who actively flaunt their specialized expertise in South-Pacific geo-strategic, geopolitical affairs in the mainstream media.

Final result- group think with endless feed back loops.

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