Thursday 26 May 2022 | 00:23 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 May 2022 | 00:23 | SYDNEY

Engaging Fiji?


Jenny Hayward-Jones


17 November 2010 11:15

Earlier this week we hosted, in conjunction with the ANU's Crawford School of Economics and Government, the Fiji/Vanuatu Update conference. As part of that event, a panel of experts contemplated the nature of Fiji's political environment and assessed options for international engagement with the government of Frank Bainimarama.

Two thoughts offered by our panelists struck me as useful means of understanding the situation.  Duncan Kerr's suggestion that Australia should enter into a kind of strategic re–engagement with Fiji, without condoning the political leadership, offered a way forward for Australian policy.  Reverend Jovili Meo's interesting comment that Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was a man of many faces implied that re–engaging would be challenging.

Our discussion coincided with remarks by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Melbourne for AUSMIN, calling for the government of Fiji to restore democracy.  With Kurt Campbell indicating more direct engagement with Bainimarama, then Clinton herself weighing in, it seemed Australian diplomacy was in danger of being left behind. Prime Minister Gillard's comments that pressure on Fiji needed to be maintained did not suggest any change of course from Canberra.

I have been inclined to lean towards a policy akin to Duncan Kerr's proposal for more engagement from Canberra. But a week later and after television images of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, combined with statements from Western leaders demonstrating the effectiveness of international pressure on military regimes, I am still undecided about the relative merits of pressure and engagement on a government led by a military 'man of many faces'.

This opinion piece from the Financial Times (Ed: requires free registration) offers some useful analysis that could also be applied to Fiji.  The influence of Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the EU in Fiji will be limited while Bainimarama believes China will be Fiji's saviour and while other Pacific Island countries patch up their relations with Fiji. However, as in Burma, domestic antipathies towards a powerful China, which in Fiji's case does not bring many opportunities for locals with its aid and investment, may mitigate against reliance on the Asian superpower. Moreover, there are still very strong people–to–people links between Australia and Fiji, which make it more likely Australia will play a role in Fiji's future than not.

Bainimarama has made it clear engagement will be on his terms alone. He has demonstrated an impressive ability to resist international pressure to date, which has included rejecting the only significant carrot on offer — EU support for the floundering Fiji sugar industry. As with Burma, encouraging reform in Fiji — whether through more pressure or through engagement — will be a long game.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo, used under a Creative Commons licence.