Time to bring Fiji in from the cold?

mpokeefe_thumbDr Michael O'Keefe
Email: m.okeefe@latrobe.edu.au

First published in The Australian on 4 December, 2012.

Earlier this month a new regional organisation was born. It arrived with little fanfare, but it may very well reshape the architecture of cooperation in the South Pacific.
Canberra’s attention has focussed on Burma, Syria and the Security Council vote, but significant events are occurring closer to home.

In early November a Fijian government press release quietly announced the creation of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF). It replaces the Engaging with the Pacific (EWTP) process that was set up following Fiji’s suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) to maintain close cooperation between Pacific Island states.

What’s in a name? The one word difference between the PIDF and PIF is extremely significant. It signals that the agenda of the new organisation will be firmly on Pacific island development issues, including the impact of climate change. This sharply distinguishes it from the PIF, which many regional states argue has increasingly taken on a security-dominated agenda focussed on the interests of the metropolitan powers; Australia and New Zealand.

The Pacific is deeply concerned with security, but the lens through which they look at these issues is more likely a human security than national security perspective. This is how an issue such as climate change is viewed, and the fact that the PIF has been singularly incapable of living up to regional expectations in this regard is telling.

Furthermore, the most significant challenges are economic; they relate to sustainable growth and development in areas such as fisheries, agriculture, forestry and mining.

The proposed membership of the PIDF highlights the shifting Pacific seascape. The island states of the Pacific and the dependent territories of external powers are invited to attend. In fact the representatives of many of these states had actually called for the idea during the last Engaging with the Pacific meeting in August. The notable absences are Australia and New Zealand, which again points to the attempt to develop and lead a new regional agenda that is distinctly Pacific. More remarkably, the PIDF will include representatives from government, business, and civil society in national delegations to encourage partnerships.

The PIDF has larger significance in relation to the architecture of regional cooperation and Australia’s foreign policy toward Fiji. Turning the PIDF concept into reality will face some major hurdles. The plan is that the PIDF will be institutionalised before elections are held in Fiji in 2014. As such it will represent the final piece in Fiji’s diplomatic puzzle circumventing the sanctions imposed by theANZ partners as a result of the Coup in 2006.

Sanctions are a form of punishment to try to influence the behaviour of the target country. However, in this case democracy was not swiftly restored and elections are scheduled for 2014. After an initial deferment in 2009 the election timetable has been set by the Fijian government and at this stage it is hard to imagine the physical possibility of holding elections sooner.

The sanctions concentrated on diplomatic isolation. Fijian government officials (in particular the military) were targeted in a smart sanctions package that focussed on travel bans, limits on military training, and regional and international isolation, but their impact has been diluted over time.

In the six years since 2006 Fiji has negotiated direct flights to various regional capitals so travel through Auckland or Brisbane is no longer a necessity. Military training arrangements have been negotiated with regional states including Malaysia and China. New and enhanced bilateral relationships have been developed with countries such as Indonesia, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil and China. Fiji has gained membership of existing groups, such as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and has actively encouraged the growth of the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (PSIDS) side grouping at the UN, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), the Engaging with the Pacific process and now the PIDF. Fiji was elected chair of the G77 for 2013 and was Vice President of the General Assembly in 2012. Fiji is no longer diplomatically isolated.

The Fijian government is following its time line to elections in 2014 and now that the PIDF has been developed it may be time to look beyond 2014 and decide how Canberra’s relations with Suva will be recalibrated. It may be that Fiji should be slowly and deliberately brought back in from the ‘cold’.

Constructive engagement can already be seen with the budgetary support for the elections process. The exchange of High Commissioners would be another good signal that diplomacy will be undertaken at the highest levels. Allowing government officials involved in the election process to transit through Australia and NZ might be another possible thaw in relations.

The recent floods in Fiji prompted an increase in Australian aid. This could be enhanced to support sustainable development projects that fit the PIDF agenda. Furthermore, the flood damage highlighted Fiji’s incapacity to deal with large-scale disaster management. The Australian Defence Force has a well-earned reputation in this regard. Niche training could be provided to the Fijian military in non-combat related skills to build local capacity to deal with environmental crises. It is also likely that the bans on Fijian participation in new peacekeeping operations will be lifted in 2014. The ADF and Australian Federal Police (AFP) also have well-earned reputations in peacekeeping and peacemaking so there are many avenues for cooperation.

Another initiative that would speak to the new PIDF agenda would be to resume RAAF maritime patrol overflights of Fiji’s EEZ to protect against illegal fishing.

Diplomatically there is much to be done. Is now the time? Why wait for 2014?

Michael O’Keefe is a senior lecturer in the politics and international relations program at La Trobe University