Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fiji: Still more trouble in paradise

by Danielle Cave - 13 July 2010 
Today has seen another chapter written in the souring relations between Fiji and its southern neighbours, Australia and New Zealand.

Fiji's government, headed by military chief and coup leader Frank Bainimarama, has expelled Australia's acting High Commissioner in response to what Suva described as 'Australian interference' in Fiji's attempts to expand next week's Melanesia Spearhead Group (MSG) meeting to include non-Melanesian countries.

Bainimarama, who is in South Korea (and surely not exclusively for IMF meetings; more on Fiji's 'Look north' policy below), has said the Melanesia Spearhead Group (MSG) meeting will go on, despite news late last night that Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Natapei, current chair of the MSG, had officially deferred next week's meeting amid concern from MSG members Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia over Fiji's impending chairmanship of the body.

This turn of events is not overly surprising; there has been talk that a number of Pacific island leaders have been uncomfortable with Bainimarama's actions and exploitation of the MSG name.

On top of the expulsion of Australia's acting High Commissioner, Bainimarama's anger at the Australian Government's open objection to the establishment of an 'MSG Plus' took him as far as to threaten to cancel Fiji's planned 2014 elections altogether.

This may seem melodramatic, given there are four years to resolve this latest stoush. However, it's a rather brilliant move from an ambitious strongman who is desperately grasping for excuses to postpone the elections. In reality, Bainimarama has no real plans to relinquish his leadership and such a threat, if followed through, loosely pins the blame on the Australian Government, again.

The Australian Government is no Virgin Mary in this latest round of developments, and most likely did actively lobby against widening the MSG architecture, both within and outside Fiji. In addition, the Australian Government has been confused and often contradictory in its approach to Fiji, often unsure of how to react to Bainimarama's quick-draw legislating by executive fiat.

Stephen Smith's current position, that he will not retaliate and not 'respond in-kind', is welcome. Isolating Fiji further by expelling Fiji's last diplomatic representation in Australia would simply close the door on a potential improvement in relations in the future.

What does this latest exchange of blows mean for the region? Another Pacific Island Leaders forum meeting, due to take place next month in Vanuatu, could be wasted focusing on Fiji at the expense of other important regional issues. Bainimarama's loss of his last malleable foreign policy tool – the MSG – will have longer-term implications for the region.

Fiji will likely continue expending energy and air miles 'looking north' to Asia. It is always smart to hedge your bets, but what is often forgotten when looking north is that 'north' has bigger fish to fry and generally will only have time to glance back in between meals.

There is a human face to Bainimarama that rarely receives air time in Australia, and it is obvious that he genuinely cares for his country and his people. Unfortunately, there is a large gap between intentions and leading a country. With media freedom at an all-time low and the private sector watching with growing concern, he really is suffocating the potential of his own country, which is depressing, much like this market research outlook for Fiji 2010-11, widely available to potential investors around the world.

http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2010/07/13/Fiji-Still-more-trou...

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