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Fiji moves to embrace a Pacific brotherhood leaving Australia and New Zealand estranged

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

Editorial – By Selwyn Manning.

UPDATED: Events this week in Fiji have seen a new pact forming where leaders of some Pacific island states have engaged with the military government of Fiji with Australia and New Zealand absent and outside the fold.

This week in Fiji, Pacific Islands leaders who gathered at the invitation of Fiji’s military government were urged to look outside the cabal of old traditional friends and seek new trade agreements and associations with economies further afield.

That was a key message delivered by Fiji’s military leader and Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama to Pacific leaders who had gathered at a summit meeting titled Engaging with the Pacific and held at Natadola Intercontinental Hotel Thursday morning.

Notable for their absence were leaders from Polynesia indicating a demarcation line between Polynesia and south west Pacific states.

Those attending the meeting largely represented west Pacific and Melanesian island states and included: Kiribati President Anote Tong, Papua New Guinea’s Grand Chief and Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, East Timor Ambassador to Fiji, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Dr Derek Sikua, Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia, and Vanuatu’s Foreign Affairs Minister Joe Natuman. (For more on who attended, see Fiji statement on Scoop.co.nz.)

Bainimarama’s message to attendees was clearly designed to drive a wedge between Australia, New Zealand, and the west Pacific while creating a sense of brotherhood, a pact, among the leaders of Pacific Islands states.

The Commodore’s statement read: “… some matters and challenges cannot be resolved by simply relying of traditional spheres of influence which Pacific states belong to that is dictated by our colonial past.”

He called for “better cooperation amongst Pacific leaders” and committed Fiji to assisting its neighbours on a “bi-lateral basis”.

The establishment of a Regional Police Academy was mooted, and in a statement issued by the Fiji military government, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare welcomed the idea.

Sir Michael said: “I think this is a very good idea and it will mean engaging more of our own people than relying on Australia and New Zealand. The idea of a regional peacekeeping should be a successful programme like the RAMSI. We need to have further discussions on this,” he said.

The Fiji Military Government and its Melanesian counterparts have clearly identified a perceived weakness in the once dominant Australia and New Zealand camp. New Zealand’s National-led Government is seen as weak and inexperienced on Pacific affairs. Australia’s Labor Government has internal strains and its new Prime Minister Julia Gillard is focussed more on domestic politics, and on winning the 2010 Federal Election, rather than on Pacific regional geopolitics.

As such, the Pacific is experiencing a power vacuum

A long shot? Some Pacific Islands leaders who gathered in Fiji at the invitation of Commodore Frank Bainimarama were urged to join Fiji in creating solutions to their challenges and without Australia and New Zealand's cooperation. (Photo courtesy of Fiji's military government.)

The command that Australia once asserted under the leadership of former prime minister John Howard and his foreign minister Alexander Downer, has been eroded. And the respect Pacific politicians displayed when engaging with New Zealand’s former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark has been replaced with an air of indifference toward her successor John Key.

Fiji has sensed this and has made its move. Earlier this month Bainimarama issued an invitation to all Pacific leaders to gather in Fiji to witness first hand the progress he said his Regime had achieved since taking power in December 2006 by military coup.

The invitation followed a decision by Bainimarama to refuse a request from the Pacific Island Forum to send representatives to observe progress, or otherwise, in Fiji.

This is significant. In that event, Bainimarama’s strategy was interpreted by New Zealand and Australia as a move to undermine the Pacific Islands Forum leaders summit to be held in Port Vila, Vanuatu, in August.

Certainly Vanuatu’s decision to boycott a Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting in Fiji was interpreted by Bainimarama as a symptom of Australia and New Zealand meddling in Fiji’s domestic and multinational affairs.

What Fiji’s military regime has long wanted is for other Pacific Island states to acknowledge the progress it has achieved since taking power.

This week, Bainimarama noted that Pacific Island leaders had gathered in Fiji “in full support of the Fiji Government’s Strategic Framework for Change (SFC) and Roadmap to Democracy (RDSSED) after a crucial presentation by the Strategic Framework for Change Coordinating Office (SFCCO) on Fiji’s way forward to elections come 2014”.

He said the Pacific leaders showed “interest in a number of Government initiatives such as the anti-corruption laws, rural development programmes, poverty alleviation and good governance policies as well as Government’s education-for-all initiative”.

In effect Bainimarama has pulled off a second coup. This month, he solicited interest, support, and brotherhood from his Pacific neighbours while positioning so Australia and New Zealand would fall back into retrenchment. While political, it is almost strategically militaristic.

A Parched Olive Branch

New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key's Government appears weak and inexperienced on Pacific affairs. (Photo by Spike Mountjoy, courtesy of Scoop.)

In December 2009, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key attempted to engage with Fiji’s military regime via a letter intended to ease tensions and open opportunities to re-establish dialogue with Fiji. The letter appeared to be received well. But little outward progress was notable in the months that followed, with relations between Fiji and the western-leaning economic powerhouses soon returned to a stressed condition.

The problem for Australia and New Zealand is estrangement leads to a political void that science assures will be filled. In Fiji’s case, as the tide ebbs and its former friends are dragged out to sea, and their economic and political cooperation is virtually exhausted, China and other ‘outside powers’ are geopolitically eager to occupy the space that Australia and New Zealand once enjoyed. The United States of America’s want to see stability, as it defines it, reestablished in the Pacific, has not come to pass. This in itself applies considerable stress to Australia and New Zealand’s broader foreign policy.

Even though many Pacific Island states would acknowledge that when disaster strikes, Australia and New Zealand have provided a helping hand. But Bainimarama’s message to these leaders is to think outside the square. This talk speaks of a logic that they understand. He suggests they accept there are other powerful nations that can be called on. And the Commodore has urged his Pacific friends to realise that Fiji is there for them in a way Australia and New Zealand are not. He detailed real challenges that face island states such as transport, energy, education, people and labour movement, regional tourism, ship repairing, manufacturing and retailing. And in turn, he detailed how solutions can be achieved when Pacific Island states pull together for a common good.

In 2006, Commodore Bainimarama was effective in driving a wedge into the heart of Fiji’s multi-party government. This time the wedge is being driven deep into the heart of the regional block, the Pacific Islands Forum. Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, and conservative Pacific Island Forum states would be wise to take note.

Delicate diplomacy is now required.

In 2009, Pacific Forum leaders voted to kick Fiji out of their fold until its military returned to its barracks and allowed democracy to return. At the Forum’s 2010 leaders summit some Pacific member states are likely to push for Fiji’s return. Should consensus not be achieved, the August 2010 summit may see the formation of a new splinter South West Pacific group, constructed with Fiji at its core, a brotherhood of sorts, that renders Australia and New Zealand as irrelevant.

Commodore Bainimarama said this week: “Our focus must be based on collaboration, co-operation and a vision.” The key for Australia and New Zealand is realising what that vision is and finding common ground fast.

Selwyn Manning is co-editor of Scoop Media (www.scoop.co.nz) and acting editor of Pacific Scoop.

14 comments:

  1. terry, 23. July 2010, 7:07

    where do you come with this crap selwyn?..you sound as delusional as Bainimarama and that other moron crosbie walsh..there will be no splinter group and Fiji under Bainimarama will never be readmitted to PIF..we can easily read his bs from Apia..
    those leaders and reps in Nadi yesterday should be ashamed of themselves..there’ll be a lot of face-saving in Vila next week..looking forward to some hard questioning and real journalism instead of this rubbish you people come up with..

     
  2. selwyn, 23. July 2010, 9:11

    Terry this is analysis of the strategy Bainimarama is using to draw elected Pacific leaders closer to Fiji. This piece is not an apologetic item designed to legitimise the coup leader, rather to the contrary. It is a pity you labeled it as such. Political analysis pieces like this seek to stand inside the space of the other side, in an attempt to understand the position that side may take, to expose the motives, and to display moves the other side is likely to deploy in the short and medium term. Far too often, others label such items as sycophantic rubbish. That is your prerogative. But your comments fall short of understanding regional geopolitical analysis. You let yourself down in this regard. I’d suggest you re-read it, consider the weak positions Australia and New Zealand occupy in 2010 Pacific affairs, and attempt to analyse yourself the positions your opponents may make. If you do so, and you establish a track record where your predictions prove accurate, then you will be doing your readers and perhaps your country a service. You were frank, so I am being frank in return. I do agree with you in this context, there will be significant efforts by the Government that you work for, also Australia and New Zealand to pull those who attended the Bainimarama meeting this week back into the PIF fold. A lot of face saving is indeed needed. Don’t you think that’s what Bainimarama wanted? If this piece assists in waking New Zealand’s and Australia’s minders up to that fact as it has you, then this analysis piece has done its job.

     
  3. leon delanicolo, 23. July 2010, 9:23

    @ terry

    You can say whatever you like but the tide is changing. Change will come as soon as other Pacific island countries realise that there are other countries besides Australia and New Zealand who are eager to help them genuinely and not piecemeal or help with a string attached.

    Samoa will end up the laughing stock of the Pacific. As Bainimarama said in his recent interview with Graham Davies, Samoa’s PM is the mouth piece of Australia and New Zeland. When they say jump, he asks how high. The Samoan PM cannot compare himself to Bainimarama because as Bainimarama said, for all his years of leading Samoa, more than 10 years now (isn’t that sounding like a dictator too?), the only reform he did is changing which side of the road the Samoan should drive on.

     
  4. terry, 23. July 2010, 11:06

    Samoa is the poster-boy in terms of implementing institutional/structural and everything else reforms Leon..but we don’t go round singing our praises..it’s so not Samoan style..so go do your homework Leon..
    With the absence of U.S foreign policy in the region, New Zealand and Australia and to some extent Japan and China are our sphere..It’s not advisible for Frank to play games with Uncle Chang..Having no international leverage, the Chinese are going to screw him real tight..
    The issue with the Forum is very simple..PIF had already appointed a contact group to deal with Fiji..they will report back to PIF in Vila..I doubt it’ll be favourable..
    Even if Fiji has elections I doubt they’d automatically be readmitted to the Forum..It has to convince its neighbours that they’ve satisfied all democratic governance benchmarks..Those govts would also be asking themselves, would it be in my national interest for Fiji to be back in the fold?
    This week’s Nadi meet was a public relations (meant for the cameras) exercise. That roasted constitutional pork and mashed judicial salad must have been real good. Those idiots picking their teeth at what’s left of media freedom in that country..Frank doesn’t care what their views are on the running of his regime..they were there for expediency
    But Franks little lecture takes the cake..it was all Mobutu/Mugabe styled i-gots-a-chip-on-my-shoulder mumbo-jumbo no-substance drivel..
    Frank’s bure is falling down..he’s got nothing to give..just farting in the wind..he doesn’t call the shots in the region
    Come Vila, the islands will be busy scrapping over millions from New Zealand, Australia, China, Japan, the U.S, Germany, the EU, the World Bank, ADB, etc, etc..it’ll be Frank who?
    Meanwhile it’ll be cold lonely few days in Suva..

     
  5. Tasi, 23. July 2010, 11:56

    Selwyn, shouldn’t you have said “SOME” pacific leaders? Coz clearly there are a number of Pacific Islands there were not represented in Fiji. I can’t find anywhere in your article that names the individual Pacific nations that were there, nor a definition of the Pacific nations you call “conservative Pacific Island Forum states”. What are the motives of Bainimarama to supposedly drive a wedge through the PIF?

     
  6. hateme, 23. July 2010, 12:49

    What do you guys understand about Fiji and what Bainimarama has done and is doing. You guys are worse then him and atleast he is more sincere regardless of what you are shouting. Don’t sreen all through media’s eyes as everyone knows MEDIA is the main culprit .

     
  7. selwyn, 23. July 2010, 14:37

    Tasi thanks for that, you are quite right, I’ve qualified the opening paragraph and caption with ‘some’. Also I’ve included information on who attended, and noted a demarcation line that appears between the west Pacific Melanesian states and those of Polynesia.

    However your criticism of not detailing possible motives fails. The likely motives of Bainimarama are clearly expressed in the article. Here is just one example: “Bainimarama’s message to attendees was clearly designed to drive a wedge between Australia, New Zealand, and the west Pacific while creating a sense of brotherhood, a pact, among the leaders of Pacific Islands states.”

    I need not further expand on this aspect.

    The context surrounding the term “conservative Pacific Islands Forum states” suggests those nations that subscribe to maintaining the status que (with regard to the PIF), ie; I used the word ‘conservative’ within a context of those who do not seek change. Hope that helps clarify my intention.

     
  8. Mike, 23. July 2010, 15:45

    This is no more than a free junket for those so called Pacific Island leaders. What will they achieve anyway? Absolutely zilch, apart from expressing total disregard to the people of Fiji by supporting an oppressive regime.

    Good on you Samoa for standing up to the bully boy of the South Pacific.

     
  9. Tasi, 23. July 2010, 16:16

    Thank you Selwyn for your response. However, my comments were not criticisms, but merely asked for further clarification.

    In saying that – your explanation for Bainimarama’s motives fails as it merely repeats my question. I asked if you could provide a motive for creating a wedge in PIF – instead you reply: He is trying to drive a wedge!

    I’m sure Terry and others would say the motive is to get NZ and Aust (and other foreign entities) off his back for not restoring democracy faster. But from your political analysis where you have sought “to stand inside the space of the other side, in an attempt to understand the position that side may take, to expose the motives, and to display moves the other side is likely to deploy in the short and medium term” – what are Bainimarama’s motives?

     
  10. selwyn, 23. July 2010, 16:23

    @ Tasi

    Oh come on, you are an intelligent person Tasi. You know as well as I do that the analysis is clear regarding possible motives. If not, I’d suggest you read it again and digest. If you don’t agree with my rationale, that’s fine, it is subjective and considered through a political context, just insert your own and add to the discussion. Anyway, onward and upward.

    Selwyn.

     
  11. Michael Field, 24. July 2010, 8:49

    I have no problem with your points Selwyn, other than the fact that they don’t go far enough, and like so many others, are forced into debating an agenda set by Bainimarama. The simple fact is that relationships between Fiji and Australia and NZ are not terribly important; they’ve had their ups and downs for a couple of centuries now – indeed colonial NZ wanted Fiji as a sub-colony. Australia simply bought the best bits; the banks and farm lands. At the core of this row is that no matter what we all say now, we will have to deal with each other at some point. We simply know that to be a fact; we have to talk sometime. The real worry – censored out of the debate by Bainimarama – is that which has been highlighted this week by Professor Biman Prasad; his paper, while predominantly economic, also contains serious alarm calls on a social and racial level. Fiji is in alarming trouble. The Natadola Accord will disappear without trace from the political discord very quickly; I’d say a week. But what Prasad is talking about is something we will be stressed over for a year or two. Natadola was simply a pleasant, golf playing, intermission to reality.

     
  12. Tasi, 26. July 2010, 10:32

    Selwyn, never have I stated in my comments that I disagreed with your rationale, in fact I support people offering their opinion. And that’s what I asked from you: if you could offer your opinion on Bainimarama’s motives for putting a wedge through the PIF. I have not stood on one side of the debate (Terry) over the other, as I personally am not as knowledgeable in Fijian politics, which is why I asked you for your opinion. As Mr Field says, perhaps you don’t go far enough in your piece in having more of a critical analysis… or perhaps that’s as far as you want to go?

     
  13. Nonaga, 26. July 2010, 11:34

    Selwyn’s comment is indeed very close and editorially correct in every sense. I am sure many journalists in the region will learn from the reporting techniques and very interesting analysis that is worthy of the subject she is referring to. Sadly though, some do not agree due to personality rather than the expression of the subject matter which have mostly tarnished the testimonials of the Pacific journalists. What you feel about Fiji or any other subject is not important, what the people would like to read is the fact, not your views or the spoils out of the darkness of your heart. Some I know for a fact like Tassi who are driven by emotions rather than by facts. When you are driven by emotions you will not be able to thinks outside your limitations with your minds clouded by hate which will end you up sounding like an island drum. Journalists are supposed to be very open minded, critical rather than judgemental, curious but not rushing to conclusion, ambitious but are not driven by superficial imagination. For your information Bainimarama, although not favourable by some is very focused and determined. That is one fact that you need to learn about this man you like to call dictator. The sad fact to many of you is that Baimarama when all this reform is completed will end up a hero and not a foe.

     
  14. selwyn, 26. July 2010, 15:08

    @ Tasi

    This analysis piece is also designed to provide context for those who will be following and reporting the Pacific Island Forum in Port Vila. I will most likely write more on Fiji’s bilateral and multilateral strategies/juxtaposition once the PIF is underway. But the events that come to pass there will determine obviously how that task will be approached. I agree with Mike Field’s comment above that this analysis piece does not actually go far enough. I’m encouraged there’s an appetite for such work, perhaps it will encourage others to dig in to this style of writing, and expand it out as an alternative to the plethora or opinion-based blogs on this topic. I also agree that Professor Biman Prasad’s economic analysis piece we expansive, definitive, and progressive. Highly recommended.