Saturday 30 May 2020 | 07:10 | SYDNEY
Saturday 30 May 2020 | 07:10 | SYDNEY

Fiji: Regional wrecker


Graeme Dobell

15 December 2009 11:27

Australia confronts the slow-motion degradation of four decades of institution-building in the South Pacific. The Rudd Government entered office two years ago proclaiming a new era of partnership with the Pacific Islands. Instead, by seeking to discipline Fiji, Rudd may prompt a significant weakening of Pacific institutions and friendships.

My previous column looked at the Fiji regime's economic dream for the next decade. Emphasise that word 'dream', because the economic aspirations are in such a contrast to the present reality. The dream ignores the great damage the military supremo has so far inflicted on Fiji.

In the same way, Frank Bainimarama talks an interesting regional game, but his actions are those of an institutional wrecker, not a builder. Because the Pacific Islands Forum is at the centre of the diplomatic war with Fiji, the Forum is under most pressure. This, in turn, is infecting the two big bits of institution-building centred on the Forum – the Pacific Plan and the regional free trade talks between Australia, New Zealand and the Islands.

Casting Fiji out of the Pacific Islands Forum was the toughest call by the Forum since its creation in 1971. Imagine ASEAN contemplating for even a moment the expulsion of Indonesia or Thailand.

Apart from Australia and New Zealand, the Islands are certainly unanimous that Bainimarama's regime is worrying, unpredictable, even appalling. But the Island resolve, much less unanimity, on the amount of diplomatic muscle to be applied to Fiji is being painfully tested.

Australia's multilateral aspirations for the Pacific have developed a Fiji-sized hole. After four years of effort, the Pacific Plan is wallowing. The Plan's vision is to help the Islands by centralising functions; in other words, ceding some sovereignty to the Forum. But the Plan has little chance of getting much air amid the sovereignty war between Fiji and the Forum.

The conduct of the free trade effort points to the same structural tension. Cast out of the Forum, Fiji's regime is not allowed to take part – directly – in the PACER Plus negotiations. But at each step in the process, Fiji will be briefed on what is happening in the talks by a Forum representative. Fiji can then express its views on the negotiations via this representative.

Vital issues are being pursued through the Pacific Plan and the PACER negotiations – ideas of pooled sovereignty and economic integration, perhaps even greater labour mobility which would be vital to the future of the Pacific, especially Melanesia.

In all of these areas, Australia and New Zealand have the power to give. Yet it is now in Fiji's interest to resist Australia and New Zealand at every turn. So the big country at the centre of the South Pacific, the home of the Forum secretariat, has set out to weaken the Forum and exclude Australia and New Zealand from the region.

If the Forum is damaged, the institution to benefit will be the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Australia and New Zealand are central to the Forum (they pay for it). But Canberra and Wellington have no role in the MSG, which is funded by China.

Bainimarama is starting to talk up the MSG, and thinking about widening the institution's ambit beyond the existing members – Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Fiji will chair next year's MSG summit and the supremo thinks it would be wonderful to ask all the other Island members of the Forum to come along as observers (excluding Australia and New Zealand).

If Bainimarama sticks around until 2014, as he promises (or even longer, as his past actions suggest) the supremo will have the time to degrade Pacific regionalism just as he is afflicting Fiji's economy and polity.

Photo by Flickr user lucias_clay, used under a Creative Common license.