Fiji has moved on and Australia must play by the new rules

By: Michael O'Keefe

From: The Australian  December 29, 2011 12:00AM
A KEY assumption underlying Australian foreign policy towards Fiji may prove to be false. Even if sanctions are lifted, Fiji may not welcome Australia with open arms. Australia now faces a mature and confident Fiji across the negotiating table and elements in the Fijian government are truly "looking north".

The rules have changed and the goalposts have shifted.

Fiji today is very different to the nation that spurned international condemnation of the 2006 coup and has steadfastly maintained opposition to external "interference" in its affairs. Up to now, Australian policymakers and commentators (including this author) have not adequately adjusted their approach to account for the dramatic geopolitical shifts of the past five years.

The Fijian government is focused on its roadmap to democracy, culminating in elections in 2014. Many commentators doubt the sincerity of this plan. This misses the point. Fiji is sending a strong message that it is a sovereign state in control of its domestic affairs. Fiji will decide the nature of its government and the timetable for elections. This growing confidence is also reflected in international relations.

The recent deportation of the ACTU delegation from Fiji is a clear example of this.

An unintended consequence of five years of Australian isolation is that Fiji has found new diplomatic friends. Suva has built new relationships that transcend the traditional reliance on, and deference to, Australia. Because of Fiji's suspension, the influence of the Australian-dominated Pacific Islands Forum has diminished. Fiji has learnt to live without the PIF and is building other diplomatic architecture.
Fiji has concentrated on the Melanesian Spearhead Group, South Pacific Commission, Non-Aligned Movement and the Pacific islands grouping at the UN.

The MSG has been elevated to become an alternative diplomatic platform. Fiji has used the MSG to apply pressure to the PIF with some success. The potential of the MSG to replace the PIF shouldn't be exaggerated. It provides a counter-balancing effect only because Fiji is suspended from the PIF.
This development does not necessarily represent cracks forming in Pacific regionalism but rather highlights the growing confidence of Fijian leaders in their ability to operate on the international stage.
Fiji's membership of the SPC is also becoming more relevant. The SPC has broader membership than the PIF and brings Fiji in direct contact with the US and France. Fiji's election as chair for the next two years stands in stark contrast to its suspension from the PIF and Commonwealth.

Isolation has also encouraged a growth in bilateral relations. Closer relations with Indonesia, China and South Korea allow Fiji to face the world independently of the PIF, and allow the world to deal with Fiji independently of the PIF. This should be a concern to Canberra. Much is made of the growing influence of China. China has certainly filled the gap with loans and aid, but its primary value is as a diplomatic partner that does not question Fiji's government. However, the assumption that China is simply displacing Australia reflects old "zero-sum" thinking. Australia may be displacing itself. Shifts of this sort take time and there is still time for Australia to re-engage.

Old geopolitical perspectives reflect the view that Australia could dominate Fiji and that China is taking on this role. This does not acknowledge the maturity and confidence that Suva is showing in international affairs. In this new era China is no more likely to dominate Fiji than Australia. Closer relations are occurring on Fiji's terms.

The days of comfortable and predictable influence are over.

Why has Australia been slow to adapt to the new diplomatic realities? Australia has not engaged with the Fijian leadership for so long that it's hardly surprising that Canberra's policy is inflexible. It's hard to do diplomacy without diplomats. Isolation cuts both ways. This approach reflects old rules, where Australia was the dominant power and Pacific island states were deferential. Australia could wield its influence in the PIF and bilateral relations to engineer outcomes that suited its strategic preferences.

This may still be the case across much of the Pacific. It is shown by the fact that the PIF is holding the line on Fiji. However, Fiji always held a special role as the most active regional state and "hub" of the Pacific, and this role is not just being reasserted; it is morphing. Fiji will resume its place as the natural regional leader on its own terms, but as it does the Australia's influence will diminish. The PIF will return to resemble the vision of its founding fathers - a voice for Pacific interests and a counter-balance to large metropolitan neighbours.

In the meantime, the PIF will continue to be constrained by internal divisions. This is not a positive development for Pacific affairs or Australia's interests and speaks to the importance of resolving the dispute between Australia and Fiji. However, a rapprochement will occur only if there is a fundamental shift in Canberra.

Diplomacy is a two-way street. Suva has also sent mixed messages on the need for compromise and re-engagement. The coup led to the centralisation of power in the hands of the Prime Minister and Attorney-General. This provides opportunities and challenges for Fijian foreign policy and for Australian diplomats, should they seek to engage Suva at the highest levels.

If sanctions are lifted, some elements in government may be inclined to see Australia return as a natural partner. However, some forces may not be so inclined. As with foreign affairs, domestic politics in Fiji have also dramatically altered since the coup of 2006. The roadmap needs to survive the test of democracy. There will be winners and losers and the outcome is not predictable.

It would be perilous to ignore potential divisions in the Fijian polity over relations with Australia. As such, much closer engagement from Canberra will be required to manage an orderly return to amicable relations.
A shift to a new era in international relations has occurred in Suva. Compromise will occur only if more emphasis is placed on Fiji's terms. It may be unpalatable for Canberra but Australia needs to learn to play by the new rules of diplomacy in the Pacific.

Michael O'Keefe is a senior lecturer at La Trobe University and adjunct associate professor at the Centre for International and Regional Affairs at the University of Fiji


What a surprise said…
What a surprise that this anti Australian rubbish is written by O'keefe who is attached to University of Fiji? Like Richard Herr he is being paid by a university supporting a military junta. Not a good look, and all money paid to these so called academics should be repaid to the suppressed people of fiji.
As for fiji under the junta becoming an enemy of Australia - who cares. Australia has enemies in the past, and along with its allies who support democracy, has dealt with them, and if necessary will do so again.
Croz Walsh said…
@ What a surprise ... You don't like what Prof O'Keefe says so you insult him and make a wild, unsubstantiated attack on the University of Fiji.

I suggest you address what Prof O'Keefe wrote, and dispute his conclusions where you can. Attacking the man and not his argument is an unintelligent and lazy way to disagree.

And, for your further information, O'Keefe is an adjunct professor who, I assume, gives his services free or at very little cost to the UOF. I am an adjunct professor at USP and whatever direct or, in recent years, indirect services I offer don't cost USP anything.
Reality check said…
Perhaps instead of lecturing those of us who support democracy and freedom you should speak to the junta you support. They allow NO discussion and NO dissent. They attack the man (and elderly women) direct. Whilst people are being dragged to the barracks by these junta thugs the 'sensitivities' of coup apologist academics can go take a running jump!!
You need a reality check brother.
Hiaeradi said…
While I fully agree that the rise of China is inevitable and will be at the expense of the the so called Western World, I think that it is laughable to suggest, that Australia's policy towards Fiji will change the least bit in the global re-balancing of economic, political and military powers. China's policy is very clear cut: No matter how unsavory a dictatorship may seem from the viewpoint of Western democracies, China consistently engages with anyone who is willing to let China benefit. A similar position of Australia would be politically very hard to sell to the domestic audience. Imagine Gillard announcing that henceforth Australia will not criticize undemocratic regimes with little or no respect for human rights and become another China. On the other hand, China's relation with Australia are very strong and generate enormous mutual benefits. The notion that China would risk its relation with Australia over the politics of a small Pacific Island state with very limited resources is also hard to buy. I personally believe that in the global rebalancing mentioned above the West has only one asset to sell: the concept of free societies where governments actively protect democratic rights of their populations. We should not forget, that the pro-democracy movement in China grows by the day and the re-balancing of global powers will have to go hand in hand with allowing more freedom for its own population.
A said…
I always find it quaint when tiny countries with no credibility on the world stage start acting like they're calling the shots. It's like watching a kid argue with an adult.
Australia is still in charge of the Pacific and so is NZ and lesser so Britain, France and America. Get used to it.
Anonymous said…
@ A Said

So in your books size does matter? All I can say is: whatever works for you, go for it.
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