Why Fiji has moved on

okeefe-thumb-2 Dr Michael O'Keefe

 E: m.okeefe@latrobe.edu.au


First published in The Australian on 29 December 2011

A key assumption underlying Australian foreign policy toward 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.

The Fiji of 2011 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 last five years.

The Fijian government is focussed on the 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. Fijian diplomats have moved on. Suva has built new relationships that transcend the traditional reliance on, and deference to, Australia. Due to Fiji’s suspension the influence of the Australian dominated Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) has diminished. Fiji has learnt to live without the PIF and is building other diplomatic architecture.

Fiji’s has concentrated on the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), South Pacific Commission (SPC), Non Aligned Movement (NAM) 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 Australian dominated PIF with some success. The potential of the MSG to replace the PIF shouldn’t be exaggerated. It provides a counterbalancing 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 South Pacific Commission (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, assuming 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 not inconsiderable 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 evidenced 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 counterbalance 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 only occur 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 reengagement. 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 Road Map 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. The ‘horse has bolted’ so discussion needs to shift beyond simply ‘shutting the gate’. Compromise will only occur 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.

Dr Michael O’Keefe, Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University and Adjunct Associate Professor, Centre for International and Regional Affairs (CIRA), University of Fiji.