The Lessons in Fiji’s Campaign to Change the PIF

Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama on May 6 reiterated that he will not attend any Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders’ meetings as long as Australia and New Zealand remain full members, rather than development partners like China, the European Union, Japan, and the United States. But the former junta leader said that Fiji will remain engaged in all lower-level PIF venues, including civil society, technical, and ministerial meetings, and that the forum secretariat can remain in Suva, Fiji.

Bainimarama’s statements provide more clarity about Fiji’s intentions regarding the Pacific’s premier multilateral organization, and likely indicate a recognition that he has picked a fight he cannot win. Australia and New Zealand have both brushed off the calls for them to step back from the forum. Even more damaging, Fiji has gotten little support from other Pacific Island states. Samoan prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has been particularly vocal in dismissing Bainimarama’s crusade and has insisted that Australia and New Zealand are invaluable members of the PIF. Papua New Guinea, meanwhile, has been crystal clear that Fiji’s decision to either rejoin or boycott the PIF will have no effect on the planned leaders’ summit in Port Moresby in September.

Australia and New Zealand continue to see themselves as members of the Pacific community, and the smaller Pacific Islands largely feel the same. Australia is not only the largest donor in the Pacific; its $6.83 billion in aid from 2006 to 2013 dwarfed that of the next-largest donor, the United States with $1.77 billion. New Zealand gave $1.1 billion over the same period, making it the fourth-largest donor despite its much smaller population and economy. Japan (third largest) and China (fifth largest) rounded out the list of top five donors at $1.23 billion and $1.06 billion. Clearly, Australia’s and New Zealand’s focus on the Pacific, and aid on a per capita basis, puts them in a different league from the PIF’s development partners.

Even if Bainimarama’s continued pique at Canberra and Wellington does not see them evicted from the PIF any time soon, it does underscore the significant work that lies ahead if they, or partners in Washington, hope to regain the influence in Fiji that they lost following his 2006 coup. Fiji’s leaders remain resentful of what they see as a callous turning away by the island nation’s friends during a difficult time. Thousands of Fijians fought alongside Australian and New Zealand units in World War II. A shared colonial history left parallel institutions and a deep cultural affinity among the three nations. But instead of support, Fiji’s leaders believe Australia and New Zealand have treated them with high-handedness and hurtful but ultimately ineffectual sanctions.

One thing is clear: the period of sanctions has left Australia, New Zealand, and the United States all with severely diminished roles in Fiji. This created a vacuum into which China has gladly stepped. Fiji is the only country in the Pacific where Chinese aid ($339 million in 2014) outweighs that of Australia ($252 million in 2013, the most recent data available, which is unlikely to increase given Canberra’s upcoming $800 million in foreign aid cuts). New Zealand’s aid to Fiji was $90 million in 2013, while U.S. aid, which remains overwhelmingly focused on the freely associated states of Micronesia, was a paltry $13 million that year.

Given this state of affairs, it is little surprise that Fijian officials express a (false) perception of China as the most effective donor in the Pacific and lament that the United States appears all but absent. This also explains why Fiji sees a far different balance of costs and benefits in Australia’s and New Zealand’s roles in the PIF. Having observed a free and relatively fair election in Fiji last year—and having accepted its legitimacy—it is time for Canberra and Wellington in particular, as well as Washington, to start the hard work of repairing ties with Fiji, beginning with a more equitable distribution of aid funding. Fiji remains, after all, the second-largest of the Pacific Islands and certainly warrants more assistance than it is receiving.

The fruitlessness of Bainimarama’s efforts to see Australia and New Zealand ousted from the PIF also does not negate the validity of some of his critiques. His May 6 comments were made while he launched a meeting aimed at forging a draft agreement to institutionalize the Pacific Islands Development Forum. That institution, launched two years ago, has succeeded despite initial opposition from Australia and New Zealand, which saw it as an attempt to undermine the PIF. Its success highlights the perceived shortcomings of the PIF, including the insularity of the leaders’ meetings, a lack of consultation with nongovernmental stakeholders, the perceived high-handedness of donors, and a seeming unwillingness, especially in Canberra, to confront the existential threat that climate change poses to low-lying Pacific nations.

The best way to counter Bainimarama’s scapegoating of Australia and New Zealand in the PIF is to continue to work to improve the forum’s inclusivity and effectiveness, especially on climate change.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)

Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies 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).

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative