Snubbed: Frank Bainimarama (photo: Grubsheet)

Japan has damaged its close relations with Fiji by bowing to an Australian request not to proceed with plans to invite the Fijian leader, Frank Bainimarama, to an important regional conference this month. The Australian newspaper says Tokyo had been keen to ask Commodore Bainimarama to come to Japan  for the triennial PALM Forum of Pacific leaders. But after the intervention of Australia’s foreign minister, Bob Carr, the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, wrote to the Fijian leader explaining that his foreign minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, would be invited instead. Japan is reported to have been convinced by Australia that not enough has been done to lift “draconian” public-order regulations in Fiji.

Freeze : Japanese ambassador, Eiichi Yoshima, with Fiji's president Ratu Epeli Nailatikau (photo: Minfo Fiji)

Suva has reacted coolly, telling Japan that Ratu Inoke is “busy” with another international engagement and that the country will not be sending anyone to PALM. A Japanese Foreign Ministry official indicated Tokyo had been surprised and disappointed by Fiji’s response. “We took it as a very negative sign and we are very unhappy about it,” he said. But Japan clearly underestimated the offence caused in Suva by its decision to put its relationship with Australia first and allow Canberra to dictate Japanese policy.

Fiji had been hoping to capitalise on what The Australian described as Prime Minister Bainimarama’s first major opportunity to rejoin the international community since announcing a series of reforms aimed at restoring democracy. These include the formation of a commission to formulate a new constitution in the lead-up to planned elections in 2014. Japan, the paper says, had been keen to end the military leader’s diplomatic isolation by inviting him to attend the PALM talks. But that was before Mr Carr persuaded the government that Fiji had not yet done enough to warrant being rewarded.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry official said that Japan welcomed the promise of elections and constitutional consultation, but after “very, very in-depth consultations with Australia” decided to drop its push for the commodore’s attendance. “The public-order decree is (effectively) still in place and there’s still a quite significant chilling effect on various groups including trade unions,” The Australian quoted him as saying.

Japan-Pacific ICT building in Suva (photo: Grubsheet)

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who is visiting Tokyo for talks, welcomed Japan’s decision not to invite Commodore Bainimarama. “Our view is that we maintain our position on Fiji until we have been persuaded that the process of constitutional consultation is thoroughly open,” he said. “There have been encouraging signs in Fiji but the continuing process of consultation about a new constitution has some distance to go. But there should be no weakening of our position until democratic norms have been reinstated.”

Warmly regarded: outgoing ambassador Yutaka Yoshizawa ( photo: Grubsheet)

In Suva, Australia’s intervention will be greeted with fury. The Fiji Government had hoped for a gradual thawing of relations with Canberra after Mr Carr spoke of “credible steps” to restore democracy when he recently visited the Fijian capital as part of a delegation from the Pacific Forum. But Japan’s snub to Prime Minister Bainimarama will also cause disappointment and dismay. In stark contrast with Australia and New Zealand, Japan has maintained good relations with Fiji and its ambassadors have had regular meetings with Bainimarama himself. Last month, Bainimarama warmly thanked Japan for its assistance at the opening of the new Japan-Pacific ICT ( Information and Communication Technology) complex at the University of the South Pacific. The Japanese Government provided $US 21.5 million for the project. Bainimarama also paid tribute to the outgoing Japanese ambassador, Yutaka Yoshizawa, who was seen to be especially popular in Fiji Government circles. As Fiji’s relations with Japan go into deep freeze, his successor, Eiichi Oshima, is likely to face a much cooler reception.

This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun.

POSTSCRIPT: The Fiji Government has issued the following statement from the Prime Minister, politely making plain that it would have expected the country’s leader to attend a leaders’ meeting and inviting his Japanese counterpart to visit Fiji.

Fiji will not be attending the sixth Pacific Island leaders meeting (PALM) in Tokyo, Japan this year.

While thanking Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda for inviting Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola to the meeting, Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said Fiji will not attend as it “is a meeting of leaders”. The Prime Minister was not invited.

Prime Minister Bainimarama said despite this Fiji is committed to promoting high levels ties between Fiji and Japan as Fiji and Japan have long enjoyed an excellent friendship.

He invited the Japanese Prime Minister to visit Fiji later this year to enhance these political and economic ties.

Prime Minister Bainimarama said Fiji has recently engaged with the international community at an unprecedented level.

He said the constitution consultation process towards the 2014 democratic election had started and the government remains focused on implementing the roadmap for democracy and sustainable socio-economic development.

He said the government has received the full support of most members of the United Nations for the roadmap.

“With the recent conclusion of the UN Needs Assessment Mission and the visit by the Forum Ministerial Contact Group, we expect to remain fully engaged with and receive the full support of all members of the international community on our way forward to democratic elections based on what is best for Fiji and its people,” the Prime Minister said.