Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 21:25 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 21:25 | SYDNEY

The Pacific Way wanes


Graeme Dobell

26 August 2008 14:40

The Pacific Way is waning slowly into the waves. By even threatening to expel Fiji from the Pacific Islands Forum, the annual leaders’ summit has effectively read the last rites over the traditional Forum way of doing business. It’s ironic that Fiji, the country which did most to call into existence the amorphous Pacific Way, is the country now causing it to unravel.

The Pacific Way shares several characteristics with the ASEAN Way. Both Ways (of doing things) are used by governing elites to focus on conversation and consensus, respect for sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of neighbours. And both Ways are declining in usefulness as they crash against hard cases: Burma for ASEAN and Fiji for the Forum. Moral persuasion loses its force when a member state refuses to be persuaded, or even agree on the moral basis of the argument.

Fiji’s Ratu Kamisise Mara was one of the original Pacific leaders who created the idea of the Pacific Way after the founding of the Forum in 1971. Mara used the term as the title for his memoir, The Pacific Way: A Memoir. Characteristically, Mara didn’t devote much effort to actually defining The Way. The Ratu often didn’t see the need to explain things. After all, defining custom too exactly can limit a chief’s ability to appeal to 'tradition' to deal with a specific problem.

Fiji used The Way most effectively to defend itself from Australia and New Zealand after the two coups in 1987. Canberra and Wellington blasted Fiji’s military for the twin coups, but got almost no support from all the other Island members of the Forum. Mara commented in his memoirs that the lambasting from Australia and New Zealand was in contrast with the understanding shown by the rest of the region for 'Pacific thought, feeling and customs.' Beyond the silence of the small states, the big players – Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanutu – went further and stated that Fiji should be left to work out its own solutions.

The Pacific Way even gave some cover in 2000 to Fiji’s military strongman, Frank Bainimarama. In response to the siege in Parliament, the Commodore overthrew the President (Ratu Mara) and declared martial law. The rest of the Pacific, apart from Australia and New Zealand, kept relatively quiet.

The habit of polite silence seems finally to have been abandoned at the Forum summit in Niue. According to Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, the Forum took 'unprecedented' steps in declaring an unequivocal condemnation of Bainimarama and threatening to suspend Fiji from the Forum.

In explaining the attempts to change the ASEAN Way to deal with Burma, Singapore’s George Yeo, said ASEAN may not have got teeth, but now at least it has a tongue. The Forum communique from Niue shows the Pacific ready to give tongue  to its frustration with the Bainimarama regime. And threatening to expel Fiji can fairly be described as an unprecedented display of teeth.

By refusing to go to Niue, the Commodore broke some of the rules of the old Pacific Way. He failed to show respect, he failed to come to talk. And he broke one of the practical rules of diplomacy – never leave the stage to your opponents because that means abandoning any right to influence the tone and content of the communiqué.

The wording of the statement is tough. It’s notable that the threat to expel Fiji comes at the end of the series of paragraphs about the military regime. The explusion words were in the part of the draft where they could be most easily amended or deleted, according to the mood of the leaders. Bainimarma’s absence meant the toughest line was adopted. That says something about the sense of frustration with Fiji’s military man, and also the quiet doubts across the region about whether the Commodore’s word or his character can be relied on.

The editorial in the Solomon Star gives a good indication of the sense of Pacific exasperation with Bainimarama:

Bainimarama is not only the region’s first real military dictator and an abuser of basic human rights. He is also a man who does not keep his word. The strong language in the communique from the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Summit in Niue is unprecedented. The Forum too often has been wishy-washy on issues. This time the communique reflects not only Australian and New Zealand exasperation with the commodore’s failure to move Fiji back to democracy as promised. It also underscores just how frustrated island leaders have become with the games being played by Commodore Bainimarama, his military, and their collaborators.”

None of this assumes the Forum will be able to progress from using its tongue to sinking its teeth into Fiji. Whatever their anger with Bainimarama, the Island members of the Forum will be eager to find reasons not to expel Fiji. That reluctance will go double for Fiji’s fellow members in the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Do the rest of the MSG – PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands – need to eject Fiji from the MSG if they eject it from the Forum? And by the way, what happens to the Forum Secretariat in Suva if Fiji is no longer a Forum member?

Frank Bainimarama will not be able to use the Pacific Way to keep the Forum at bay. But if the Commodore surprises by giving some ground and asking for help and understanding from the Forum, he will find many of the Islands eager to avoid the hard choices involved in expulsion. The Pacific Way and the ASEAN Way have always been government-created mechanisms to paper over problems and put off difficult decisions. That part of the instinct still lives in the Pacific, as we will see if Fiji shows some uncharacteristic diplomatic smarts.