Bringing Fiji Back into the Fold: A U.S. Perspective

Australia and New Zealand normalized relations with Fiji July 30 by agreeing to exchange high commissioners. Yet, despite the Australian and New Zealand governments’ claims in the press that the normalization is the result of successful steps toward democracy, in reality it is more an admission of the failure of their previous hard-line policies. Isolation had long proved ineffective in securing their goal of pressing Fiji’s military regime to reinstate democracy, and a softer approach to Fiji has become the best route available to influence change.

On December 5, 2006, a coup lead by Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama toppled Fiji’s democratically elected government only to receive resounding condemnation from the international community. Fiji’s bilateral relations with Australia and New Zealand soured rapidly with the implementation of targeted sanctions against the military regime, including a travel ban against the regime’s officials, suspension of seasonal worker schemes, a ban on munitions trade, and the cessation of military–to-military interaction. Regional isolation intensified in 2009 after Bainimarama failed to hold the elections he had promised or, indeed, to open any discussion about the return to democracy. In response, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the Commonwealth suspended Fiji. Fiji expelled Australia’s high commissioner in November 2009 and New Zealand’s high commissioner in 2010, cutting diplomatic communications to the bare minimum.

The regional credibility and reputation of Australia and New Zealand have been damaged by the fact that Fiji’s military rulers did not give in to their pressure but, rather, successfully pushed back. Three aspects of this push back are noteworthy. First, the key reason for the regime’s survival has been internal stability. Despite the isolation tactics of Fiji’s neighbors and the bleak economic situation caused by the global financial crisis, the Bainimarama regime has a high approval rating of 66 percent among Fijians, who believe that he has done either a good or a very good job in running the country. Some reasons for this include Bainimarama’s policies to help the poor, a reduction in the ethnic conflict that was prevalent under Fiji’s democracy, and the fact that the military is a respected institution that looms large in Fiji and touches the lives of most Fijian families.

Second, Fiji was able to break its isolation by seeking new powerful friends to help replace the loss of traditional support. Fiji undertook a ”look north” policy with China becoming an important aid donor, Russia strengthening its ties through visiting officials, and, most recently, the opening of Fiji’s new embassy in South Korea in July 2012. The strengthening of these relationships, particularly with China, has undeniably been hastened by Fiji having nowhere else to turn.

Finally, Fiji broke its regional isolation from the PIF by strengthening the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), whose exclusive membership is made up of the most populous and resource-rich islands in Oceania. Since Fiji’s suspension by the PIF, the MSG has taken the PIF’s place in facilitating trade between Fiji and other Pacific Islands, firmly establishing itself as a competing intergovernmental organization. This development has damaged the prestige and effectiveness of the PIF. Fiji has always acted as an economic and logistical hub for the PIF countries, and therefore negotiating trade agreements—such as PACER Plus, an Australian-led push for regional economic integration—without Fiji will be ineffective. Given that Australia and New Zealand are not welcome as members of the MSG, not only has Fiji broken its isolation, but it has also turned the tables on its two largest neighbors.

Still, despite Fiji’s military regime not budging under Australian and New Zealand pressure, there are some hopeful internal signs that democracy could reemerge close to the 2014 deadline for Fijian elections. As was highlighted in a 2011 Lowy Institute poll, the Fijian belief in the importance of fundamental human rights is particularly strong and should contribute to internal concern about the success of the constitutional consultation, ending racial inequality in politics, and the coup culture.

With the normalization of diplomatic relations, Australia and New Zealand will likely be able to once again add their voices during Fiji’s democratic transition. This is important because, for the Fijian population, Australia and New Zealand still hold considerable sway. Fijian public perceptions of Australia and New Zealand remain good despite the political differences over the past few years. According to the Lowy poll, Australia is viewed warmly by the people of Fiji, receiving an average of 74 out of 100 on a 100-point scale, the highest rating of any foreign country with which Fiji has ties. New Zealand is perceived almost as warmly, receiving 72 out of 100. It is also probable that Australia and New Zealand will ease their sanctions against Fiji. In particular, reinstituting military–to-military contact would expose a new generation of Fijian military officers to Australian and New Zealand values and promote future cooperation, which is particularly vital considering the prominence of the military in Fijian society.

From the viewpoint of the United States, the normalization of relations is a step in the right direction. It is in the United States’ interests to promote stability and prosperity in the Pacific, and Fiji’s lackluster economy and its isolation from its regional partners are not in line with those goals. It may be argued that welcoming Fiji back into the fold flies in the face of the United States’ interest in human rights; freedom and democratization under the Bainimarama regime remains questionable, particularly in light of the August 3 jailing of ousted prime minister and political opponent Laisenia Qarase. However, with the apparent failure of their hard-line approach and by keeping communications open, Australia and New Zealand now have a better chance to affect the quality of the Fijian regime that will emerge in 2014.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the August 9, 2012, issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)

Elke Larsen is a research assistant with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Elke Larsen