Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 18:10 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 18:10 | SYDNEY

Getting realistic about Fiji


Fergus Hanson


6 May 2009 14:50

While Fiji's dictator Frank Bainimarama has been sunning himself at the Asian Development Bank meeting in Bali, not everything has been going his way recently. 

He called the Pacific Islands Forum's bluff — that Fiji would not be suspended — and lost. Turns out, he couldn't convince a single member to block the move — which suggests a sorry story of lost influence for a country that sits at the heart of the Pacific and which houses the Secretariat of the Forum itself.

So far, his ham-fisted PR campaign to paint the suspension as an Australian-New Zealand conspiracy is also failing. The Samoan Prime Minister has rejected the suggestion and Australian-PNG relations are looking up. Others, like Solomon Islands and Tuvalu, have unfortunately been softer.

It's a short-term victory for the forces of democracy, but in reality the suspension also presents some difficult challenges. Besides the important political message, the suspension has two key implications:

The first involves suspension of participation by the leader, ministers and officials of Fiji from all Forum meetings and events arranged by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, including the annual Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting.  The second measure involves ensuring the military regime in Fiji does not benefit directly from Forum regional cooperation initiatives or any new financial or technical assistance...  

The first measure, while a natural consequence of suspension, speaks to a wider problem of engagement. It is one thing to suspend Fiji's participation in Forum meetings, it is another to refuse to engage the regime at all, and that seems to be the trend at present.

Refusing to engage Fiji at all is clearly self defeating and inconsistent with our engagement with other dictatorial regimes. We talked with Musharraf so why not Fiji? Bainimarama might be short on credibility, but refusing to talk gets us nowhere.

The second measure speaks to a tough problem for Australia and those Pacific countries that depend on Fiji economically. It would be pointless for us to cripple the Fiji economy through sanctions, because Australia would bear most of the cost for fixing it. My colleague Jenny had some good recommendations to get around this in her recent policy brief.  

A practical example that highlights the conundrum we are now in comes from New Zealand's trade minister who said regional trade talks (PACER Plus) will go ahead without Fiji this weekend. That will likely prove awkward: what with Fiji being the country through which so much regional trade occurs and the second largest trading partner of Australia in the Forum.

Photo by Flickr user grasskirt _ adi nacola, used under a Creative Commons license.