Fiji’s search for new friends

Author: Sandra Tarte, USP, Suva

In 2010, Fiji marked 40 years of independence. Significantly, the Prime Minister, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, chose to celebrate the anniversary at the World Expo in Shanghai, rather than at home.

In many ways, this choice underscored the focus of Fiji’s leadership in 2010, which was to diversify and broaden international partnerships. Motivated by the need to deal with pressing economic problems at home and counter diplomatic sanctions that have isolated it from close neighbours Australia and New Zealand, and from the Pacific Islands Forum, Fiji adopted an increasingly proactive foreign policy in the past year.

This approach was matched by an evident willingness on the part of new and old friends to engage with Fiji and its government, notwithstanding the lack of progress towards democratic elections. This shift reflected a mix of opportunism, pragmatism and geo-political design (if not disquiet on the part of some at the shifting patterns of influence in the region).

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September, Prime Minister Bainimarama described Fiji’s new foreign policy orientation as an integral part of his Government’s Strategic Framework for Change – the set of reforms that he was committed to implementing before Fiji would return to elected government in 2014. But the search for alternative foreign partners has also been borne out of necessity, as a way to counter the effects of Fiji’s suspension in 2009 from key regional and international groupings (the Pacific islands Forum and Commonwealth).

Although often dubbed Fiji’s ‘Look North Policy’, the foreign policy trend in 2010 was to collaborate with everyone and anyone. Fiji sought membership of the Non Aligned Movement and announced the setting up of three new embassies in 2011 – in Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa. It hosted a visit from a Russian delegation, led by the resident Ambassador in Canberra, which aimed ‘to find concrete areas of cooperation’. Fiji’s Prime Minister and Attorney General also took part in a first-ever Pacific SIDS (Small Island Developing States)-Arab League Summit, which was hosted by Abu Dhabi in June. This initiative appeared to be in appreciation of the support of Pacific island members of the United Nations for the United Arab Emirates’ bid to host the International Renewable Energy Agency. One outcome of this summit was a proposal to open an Arab League office in the Pacific (possibly in Fiji – which was recognised by the Abu Dhabi host as ‘an administrative, economic and geographical hub’ of the region.)

The Pacific-Arab League summit underscored the growing role in the United Nations of the Pacific-SIDS group, and the diminishing significance of the Pacific Islands Forum bloc (of which Australia and New Zealand are members). This appeared to be the direct, though probably inadvertent, consequence of Fiji’s suspension from the Forum. The impact of this shift for Australia was remarked upon when Canada lost a crucial vote for United Nations Security Council rotating membership.

By far the most frequent high-level traffic in 2010 was to China. In part this was due to the World Expo in Shanghai, as mentioned earlier, which was seen as a golden opportunity to promote Fiji’s products and raise its profile (mainly, but not only, to China).  There were several so-called trade missions to China led by the Prime Minister, a visit by the Foreign Minister and a visit by the country’s President, at the invitation of the Governor of Ningxia Province.  Although the visits appeared mainly exploratory and few concrete outcomes were announced, a number of future deals were mooted, including new arms procurement (to support Fiji’s peacekeeping operations) and Chinese investment in the expansion of the Government shipyard and slipway in Suva.

Not to be outdone, Japan included Fiji’s Foreign Minister in its first ever PALM Ministerial Interim meeting, held in October in Tokyo. (This meeting aimed to follow-up and review the outcomes of the Fifth Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting – PALM 5). The meeting also provided an opportunity for bilateral talks between the Fiji Foreign Minister and his Japanese counterpart, signaling a shift in policy by Japan towards closer engagement with Fiji.

The United States also announced a policy of more direct engagement with the Bainimarama Government in 2010, in line with its broader policy of ‘re-engagement’ with the Pacific islands. But there was little to show for this by the year’s end. Relations soured in the wake of the non-issuing of visas to senior Fiji government officials to attend international meetings, including at the United Nations.  This reportedly prompted Prime Minister Bainimarama to suggest the relocation of the UN to China.

These diplomatic disputes with the US echoed tensions that continue to mar Fiji’s relations with its closest developed neighbors and trading partners – Australia and New Zealand. Despite some promising signs at the beginning of the year of a warming of ties, this failed to eventuate. The expulsion of Australia’s acting High Commissioner in July signaled a low-point in bilateral relations, with implications for regional politics.

The context of the diplomatic expulsion was reportedly Australia’s efforts to derail a meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) in Fiji – and deny the Fijian Prime Minister the opportunity to assume chairmanship of the sub-regional group. Fiji had planned to turn the meeting into a broader MSG-Plus (including other Pacific island countries) and build the MSG into an alternative conduit for aid and diplomacy. The sudden cancellation of the meeting by MSG Chair (Vanuatu’s Prime Minister) was viewed by Fiji as a direct result of Australian and New Zealand pressure. But the situation was salvaged by turning the planned event into a politically successful ‘Engaging with the Pacific’ meeting at which Prime Minister Bainimarama played generous host and offered bilateral and regional assistance to his Pacific SIDS neighbors. A reconciliation ceremony in December subsequently served to heal the rift within the MSG between Fiji and Vanuatu.

While there remains support within the Fiji foreign affairs establishment for dialogue and engagement with Australia, New Zealand and the Forum, there is also a sense that time is running out. If Australia and New Zealand do not ‘restore ties’, so the argument goes, a generation of foreign affairs officers will emerge who, along with their counterparts in the Fiji Military Forces , will only know and want to ‘Look North’.  Judging by events of the past year, Fiji’s realignment of its international relationships seems set to continue.

Dr Sandra Tarte is Director, Politics and International Affairs Program at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji.

This is part of a special feature: 2010 in review and the year ahead.

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