Fiji's new diplomacy has implications for the region | Pacific Beat

Fiji's new diplomacy has implications for the region

Fiji's new diplomacy has implications for the region

Updated 15 February 2012, 12:53 AEDT

Fiji used 2010 to expand its foreign relations away from its traditional partners in favour of those further afield.

It announced plans to open embassies in Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa and to join the non-aligned movement.

Like some other Pacific countries, Fiji took part in the first Small Islands Developing States summit with the Arab League.

But most of Fiji's new diplomatic action was with China.

To look at where Fiji's foreign policy is heading in 2011 and what that means for the wider Pacific region, we've been joined by Dr Sandra Tarte, Director of the Politics and International Affairs Program at the University of the South Pacific.

She says Fiji's push for closer relations with China is intensifying.

Presenter: Jemima Garrett

Speaker: Dr Sandra Tarte, Director of the Politics and International Affairs Program at the University of the South Pacific

TARTE: What we are seeing now is the isolation of Fiji from the Forum, and the more distant relations with Australia and New Zealand. But there is a certain perhaps imperative to foster closer ties with China and with other countries as well of course.

GARRETT: Sometimes it's hard to tell what's real and what's just talk when it comes to relations with China. What are the key developments you've seen over the last year, and where do you see Fiji's relations with China going this year?

TARTE: I think like many people there was a certain degree of scepticism earlier on that the rhetoric, in terms of relations with China would be matched by concrete development. But I think the important shifts are partly to do with closer diplomatic ties, and the various forms of cooperation that China is now providing Fiji. I think Fiji was always very keen to promote close ties with China, and certainly to use China as a counter to other countries. But I think China's increasingly receptive to that and is being probably more forthcoming with aid and with other forms of cooperation, and also I think significantly with cooperation with the Fiji military forces. And one of the interesting developments last year was some discussion of possible procurement from China, which would provide the Fiji military forces with new weapons to support their peacekeeping operations in the Middle East. And just recently there's been an announcement of aid from China to the engineering corp within the Fiji military forces, providing them with heavy equipment that they can use for public works that they carry out, particularly in rural areas.

GARRETT: How do you see Fiji placing itself in the wider strategic competition between the United States and China?

TARTE: Well I think there is a certain degree of what sometimes perhaps harks back to the Cold War, of trying to play off the two, and I think there's been perhaps some suggestion that Fiji maybe open to Chinese navy establishing in the future some kind of base here, and maybe even just the suggestion of that is enough to promote responses or provoke responses from the US and others. But I think Fiji's very mindful that that's something that they can do, but they have to be careful because I think in any of these situations the big powers always put their interests first, and Fiji needs to be aware that it's certainly not a big player in this game. But the US I think it's interesting is very I think keen to reengage as much as possible with Fiji, and just last week they announced a new agreement on visas being issued to Fiji officials travelling to the US, because at the end of last year as you may be aware there was difficulties on that front, and this soured the relationship between Fiji and the US.

GARRETT: Fiji has announced plans to setup embassies in Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa; three of the so-called BRICS, the big emerging economies. What's the motivation for that and does it hold any real potential for Fiji?

TARTE: Frankly at this stage I think it's partly expanding its political network and partnerships, but I mean underlying all of this ultimately is what's in it economically for Fiji, and time and again you've heard I think the leaders in Fiji, the government saying that they want to find new markets, they want to find new sources of investment, probably new sources of aid as well, and this is part of that process of diversifying relations as much as possible. And I'm not aware in the case of Brazil for example what there might be in store for Fiji, we haven't had much of a relationship with Brazil up until now. I know with Indonesia there is one that's definitely been growing closer in recent years. And South Africa now has an embassy as well in Fiji, so that political relationship is growing. But I think ultimately for Fiji it's about trying to find economic partnerships as much as anything.

GARRETT: Closer to home Fiji's relations have been more difficult. It's been suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum and had trouble within the Melanesian Spearhead Group. But it's held its own summit for Pacific leaders too. How do you see Fiji's relations with its Pacific neighbours standing at the moment?

TARTE: Well I think you're seeing interesting shifts occurring in Pacific regional politics. It's partly a function of the Fiji situation and Fiji being suspended from the Forum, which has obviously created a different dynamic within the Forum. But I also think that in recent years the Forum's role has become a little bit more contentious or controversial in certain areas, and you're seeing a little bit more disaffection perhaps being expressed by leaders or by governments in the region as the way the Forum is handling key issues. So I think what's happening in terms of Fiji's relationships is that Fiji's trying to perhaps exploit some of this disaffection by creating its own coalitions within the Pacific, and this is evident with the engaging of the Pacific Summit that they held here mid last year. It's also strengthening its relationships with the Melanesian Spearhead Group. And as you might be aware at the UN I think they were quite closely as a group, the Pacific Small Island Developing States.

GARRETT: To what extent do you think the poor standing of the Forum is a result of influence by Australia and New Zealand?

TARTE: It's hard to say, I think it seems to be that obviously there are some very complex issues and policy decisions that have to be made or are being made. There are very complex negotiations being undertaken. Maybe there's a sense that the Island countries have lost a certain degree of ownership or control over the Forum, and this is not new, I think it goes back some time. When the Forum as you know was first established, it was established by the Pacific Islands governments post-independence to really be a platform for their engaging with the international community and promoting their economic and their diplomatic interests. But over time I think that's been overtaken by other agendas, and perhaps Island countries now feel they don't have as much influence and control over the Forum as they would like.

GARRETT: You and other commentators have noted that the Small Island Developing States is becoming the most important vehicle for Pacific Island nations at the United Nations. Is that another blow to the Forum?

TARTE: Yes I think it reflects this tension within the Forum. Pacific Island states are developing states, they are small economies. Ultimately they're going to have interests that won't necessarily be the same as Australia and New Zealand. At the same time Australia and New Zealand being more prominent members of the UN have used that influence obviously to some advantage for the Pacific in the past. But I think what's led to this current situation with the Pacific SIDS grouping is that Fiji was being excluded from the dynamic within the UN, where they meet and they caucus and so on, and there's a need for an alternative avenue for Fiji. And I think that's where you see the voting taking place more along Pacific SIDS lines than Forum lines.

GARRETT: Turning now specifically to Fiji's relations with Australia and New Zealand, what prospects do you see for that this year?

TARTE: Well I'm hoping that there is some movement on that front, and obviously it's not just Australia and New Zealand call, I mean Fiji as well has to show some interest, and to some extent it's happening is that Fiji is showing less and less inclination, more interest in perhaps making overtures and are expecting the overtures to come from Australia and New Zealand. So it's a kind of difficult situation, a kind of stalemate which I think needs to be broken sooner or later, because I don't think the trend is necessarily helpful for either Australia or New Zealand or for Fiji, and perhaps also for the region.

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