#49 AUSTRALIA’S REGIONAL FOLLY

The folly of Australian policy towards Fiji is at the centre of a damning new landmark report that suggests the United States has lost confidence in Canberra’s ability to influence events in the Pacific and counter rising Chinese influence in the region. It calls for the immediate and unconditional lifting of regional sanctions against Fiji and for Australia to “repair its relationship at the highest level” by re-engaging with the Bainimarama regime through the Pacific Islands Forum. “It is well past the time to treat this festering regional wound”, it declares.

The report – covering all aspects of Australia’s relations with the Pacific and entitled “Our Near Abroad” – has been issued by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute ( ASPI), an independent, government-funded think tank set up in 2001 to advise Canberra on its defence and strategic policy options. The conclusions of its authors – Professor Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin – are bound to stick in the craw of Australia’s foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, for they present a direct challenge to the entire edifice of current Pacific policy.

The report details in stark terms the extent to which Australia has been isolated in the region and is losing its ability to influence “collective decision making in the South Pacific”. It cites as evidence the fact that eleven Pacific Island members of the United Nations have formed a voting bloc that excludes Australia and that the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) – which also excludes Australia – has backed fellow member Fiji against Australian sanctions.

It calls on Australia to “regather the threads of regional leadership” with a comprehensive range of measures that include repairing its relationship with Fiji, a country it describes as being at “the heart of the Pacific Islands regional system” as the principal transportation, communications and diplomatic hub. “The region cannot survive without its heart” – the report says – describing Fiji’s suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum as having “seriously changed regional dynamics”.

ASPI warns of the consequences of Fiji seeking new international relationships because of its breach with Australia and New Zealand over Frank Bainimarama’s 2006 coup. It says Fiji’s membership of the Non Aligned Movement ” underscores Suva’s more aggressive pursuit of South-South dialogue, specifically to reduce reliance on its traditional friends, including Australia. Whether intended or not, China has been a significant beneficiary of this development as a leading state in the NAM”, the report concludes.

The authors suggest that Fiji has outwitted Australia to the detriment of its national interests in the Pacific and the strength and cohesion of regional organisations such as the Pacific Forum . “The importance of Fiji for the new geopolitics of the region is that it’s actively challenging Australia’s privileged position in the regional system. There are many reasons why Australia should repair relations with Fiji, but the deleterious effects of the current contretemps on the Pacific Islands Forum are the key because they cascade through the regional system”. The report cites  “the impossibility” of concluding the current PACER Plus trade negotiations and “the rift between the Pacific Islands Forum and the Melanesian Spearhead Group”, which have taken opposing views on Fiji.

It goes on to say that “Forum-related sanctions (against Fiji) are being subverted by other organisations, including the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC),  the Forum Fisheries Agency and even RAMSI,  the billion dollar Australian intervention in Solomon Islands. It describes those sanctions as “impractical” and says “they have proved dysfunctional for Australia and for its image in the region”. It also says the delay in repairing the relationship has been costly, partly because attitudes in Fiji about the need for Australian assistance appear to have hardened”. As well as the lifting of sanctions, the report calls on Australia to follow New Zealand’s lead in re-establishing ministerial contact. More controversially, it also calls for the re-establishment of Australia’s ties with the Fiji military to deal with maritime security, border protection and transnational crime.

ASPI goes on to examine the divergence in approach between the United States and Australia towards Fiji, exemplified last week when Washington’s new ambassador in Suva, Frankie Reed, visited Frank Bainimarama in the prime minister’s office. No Australian or New Zealand head of mission has had any direct contact with the Fijian leader since his coup five years ago. The report quotes Ms Reed as having described Fiji’s position in the Pacific as “unique” and said it was “a key focal point in America’s larger regional engagement with the South Pacific”. In stark contrast with the Australian position, the ambassador said the United States sought a “more direct engagement with Fiji’s government to encourage the restoration of democracy” within the regime’s stated timetable of September 2014.

The ASPI report says that while “the US is reluctant to openly express criticism of Australia’s handling of regional relations, it’s clear there are genuine doubts about Australia’s capacity to lead islands’ opinion on relations with China”. It concludes that “the US is taking on a more direct role in protecting its own interests in the region, just as it did in the mid to late 1980s when it felt that managing Cold War challenges in the Pacific Islands was beyond the capacity of Australia and New Zealand”.