Monday, October 13, 2008

Fiji-Aust ties ‘show Pacific-wide problems’

Fiji-Aust ties ‘show Pacific-wide problems’ - 13/10/2008

An Australian newspaper has warned that Canberra’s poor links with Fiji is part of wider Pacific problem.The editorial in the Canberra Times warns that Australia sleeps in blissful ignorance as its undisputed place as regional leader is threatened and is about to change forever to its immense disadvantage.“The Pacific has always been our backyard, and a friendly place that we've used for restful holidays to ‘get away from it all’. As a result we took the tiny island states for granted, even when they were beginning to fall apart from internal conflicts and violence,” it says. “The clearest example of how these secure regional waters have suddenly changed into treacherous ones can be seen in Australia's relationship with Fiji. “A series of coups and the current military-dominated Government (that we don't approve of) threw up a series of diplomatic challenges. “How would it be possible to criticise the army for seizing power and still maintain a close relationship with the people of all ethnic groups on the islands?The editorial says that achieving this balance has proved to be completely beyond Australia's capacity. “Instead of redoubling efforts to find a new way of engaging with different constituencies, Australia is now perceived as a wishy-washy regional power, prevaricating between action and rhetoric, completely unable to decide how it should act. By trying to walk in the centre, and sticking to a delicately neutral line, it has managed to alienate everyone.“The biggest blunder was probably the heavy-handed military exercise that took place just off the coast of Fiji in 2006. “This was gunboat diplomacy of the worst sort; farce that rapidly descended into tragedy when a helicopter was lost off the deck of HMAS Kanimbla. Two men died and another eight were injured. “This terrible event vividly demonstrated if there was any doubt that Australia had absolutely no capacity to take any military action against the coup leader. “But when Fiji's Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama visited China recently he didn't just intend to spend his time watching the Olympic Games. “When he left Beijing he took a sensational present with him: A multi-billion-dollar soft loan that at one stroke has completely emancipated the islands from any reliance on Australian aid.“Fiji has realised as have other Pacific islands that the emerging Chinese superpower is now ready to back its desires to engage with the region with serious money. “In a matter of weeks Australia has lost its once pre-eminent status in the region. “The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was unable to provide even an off-the-record briefing about either the detail of the loan to Fiji, or how it might be spent.“It would be difficult to find a clearer indication of just how we were blindsided by the Chinese initiative, which has left our own efforts in the region completely outflanked.“It is neither possible nor desirable for Australia to buy influence in the region as it cannot hope to match the large amounts of money that a superpower can throw at the island states. “Nevertheless, where Australia has been able to shine in the past is by demonstrable goodwill, contact and genuine assistance over a long period of time." The editorial warns Canberra about the consequences of losing its status as the major donor in the region.“If Australia doesn't choose to maintain its links with the islands, they will quickly become the beneficiaries of Chinese aid and a crucial interaction with the region will be lost forever,” the Canberra Times warns.“Assuming the region will just look after itself is no longer good enough.”

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