Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bainimarama's MSG Comes of Age as US, China Eye Forum Opportunities

Pacific Scoop: Report – By Henry Yamo

Fiji interim Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe ‘Frank’ Bainimarama … suspension “helped” Fiji. Photo: Selwyn Manning/Scoop

As the Pacific Islands Forum countries’ leaders gather in Rarotonga for their annual summit this week, one thing that is sure to play on their minds is the growing interest in the region by both the United States and China.

The interest may be for their own gain, but it provides a good opportunity and better bargaining position for Pacific leaders to put everything on the table for the take. And in spite of being suspended from the Forum, Fiji has some cards falling its way, says Pacific analyst and senior lecturer Dr Steven Ratuva from Auckland University’s Centre for Pacific Studies. Instead of weakening Fiji’s position, the suspension is actually strengthening it, he told Pacific Scoop.

“Now Fiji can do anything, it can mobilise its ‘alternative forum’ outside the Forum, and it has also strengthened the Melanesian Spearhead Group, because now the MSG is keeping tightly close as a group because they came around through Fiji’s support,” says Dr Ratuva.
In the recent MSG leaders’ summit and the Engaging with the Pacific meeting last week – hosted and chaired by Fiji’s interim Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama – trade and  commerce dominated the discussions.

Other key issues discussed during the meeting included progress over decolonisation in New Caledonia and climate change.
Strong foothold Dr Ratuva said one of the reasons the US was trying to establish dominance in the Forum this year was because China had a strong foothold with the MSG, a powerful body in terms of its political power within the Forum, particularly through funding of infrastructure and supporting MSG operations.

Steven Ratuva
Dr Steven Ratuva … “China well established in Pacific through Fiji”. Photo: Del Abcede/PMC

“Fundamentally China has established itself over the years through aid and close links with Pacific Island states, particularly with Fiji after it was suspended from the Forum,” he said. “One of the first things Fiji did was to strengthen its ‘look north’ policy which has been there for some time since 1987. So China’s foothold in the Pacific to a great extent is a result of Fiji embracing China, and the influence of China on Fiji is pretty significant.”

Dr Ratuva said a boom in economic activities – particularly in mining was coming in PNG and Fiji over the next few years, so the US was worried that the political foothold which the Chinese had within the MSG would have strong economic leverage in terms of access to resources in Melanesia.

The difference about Chinese aid is that it was mostly visible infrastructural aid, Dr Ratuva said.

“For Pacific Islanders what is visible is important to them – unlike Australian aid which is invisible, nobody feels it or sees it, most of the money returns to Australia.

Generosity symbol 

“The aid which is supposed to be the symbol of generosity is actually going back to them and people don’t really appreciate it.”

So in order to compete with the Chinese, the US would need to increase its funding into the Pacific by “a few hundred million dollars, even a billion or two” to be able to match the Chinese. But whether the US could do that was another question because it had priorities in other parts of the world, Dr Ratuva said.

Speaking to ABC Radio in the wake of the MSG and Fiji meetings, Dr Ram Raju, chair of the Nadi Chamber of Commerce, said: “Such meetings are important to business in general and I hope [they] will create awareness and opportunities for trade within the MSG group and within the Pacific and improve relationships among members.

“It is important for Fiji to engage with Pacific Island countries, because Fiji plays a key role in a number of ways in enhancing and facilitating trade and development and so I think it is important for us to engage with our near neighbours.”

Meanwhile, The Guardian has reported that Australia, New Zealand, the US and the European Union continue to enforce sanctions against Fiji, which was also suspended from the Commonwealth and the PIF over the regime’s failure to meet an earlier deadline for democratic elections.

But Bainimarama shows no signs of loosening his grip on Fiji and is portraying the MSG, with him at its helm, as the “new leadership” of the Pacific Islands region.

New friends 

This also means looking for new friends to help shore up Fiji’s economy and Bainimarama has been busy strengthening ties with Asian powers.

Dr Roman Grynberg a professor who was until 2009 director of economic governance at the Forum Secretariat was reported by the Cooks Islands News to have said the Forum Secretariat was funded and almost completely controlled by Australia and New Zealand. But he added free men and women hated being treated as powerless inferiors. Rather than saying something that would just destroy their careers, Islands leaders and their officials simply created new organisations where they felt they could speak.

Dr Ratuva said that MSG countries now were “much more comfortable” with their MSG arrangements because they could see the direct benefits and also politically within the Forum, which they believed was still “very much a club” run and dominated by Australia and New Zealand.

Non attendance of some prime ministers from MSG countries “symbolically says a lot, perhaps a loss of faith in the Forum process and in the Forum as an institution”, Dr Ratuva said. The sense of ownership in the MSG was much bigger, much deeper than expression of ownership within the forum.
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