Australia, Fiji and Pacific regionalism
24 Nov 2014|

Mechanics and carFiji’s declared starting point for talking to Australia about the future of Pacific regionalism is that Australia should leave the Pacific Islands Forum. Australia’s undeclared position—made clear by its actions—is that the Forum is more important than Fiji, but of course Canberra would rather have both.

Such are the tensions to be expected between the South Pacific’s chief status quo power, Australia, and its active and agitated revisionist power, Fiji. As previously noted, Australia and Fiji have set out to shift from duel to dance. The duel will still influence the dance. And in a bizarre way, the scars of the duel might actually aid the discussion Suva and Canberra have pledged to lead on regional architecture.

In the clash between status quo thesis and revisionist antithesis, any true synthesis would be a fascinating if unlikely result. Suva and Canberra may not expect any agreement on regional architecture, but the effort can go in interesting directions. Australia and Fiji have been hacking at each other so hard for so long, it’ll be hard for them just to go back to old diplomatic bromides.

Still, regionalism lifts the eyes beyond all that bilateral bitterness. The stoush with Suva has stymied much that could or should have happened in the South Pacific over the past eight years. Getting back to ‘normal’ between Suva and Canberra allows the South Pacific to consider what a ‘new normal’ might look like.

The to-and-fro over Fiji returning to the Forum on the condition that Australia leave is an example of the need to tolerate occasional dissonance between Suva’s words and deeds. Staying focused means letting the odd bit of overheated oratory fly by. The fuss and finesse of Fiji-back-in only if Oz-backs-out is instructive.

When Fiji got its letter from the Pacific Islands Forum announcing that Fiji’s suspension from the PIF had been lifted, Suva responded by reportedly setting some conditions on its return. The Fiji Sun, quoted the Foreign Minister, Inoke Kubuabola, as saying: ‘Fiji is not going back to PIF till some changes and reforms are made in the organisation; for example, Australia and New Zealand to move out of PIF.’

Six days later, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, arrived in Suva and issued a joint statement with Fiji’s Foreign Minister—yes, Inoke Kubuabola—announcing ‘a new era of partnership and prosperity.’ Bishop spoke to the ABC’s Dominique Schwartz, to tackle the suggestion that Fiji would refuse to rejoin a PIF that had Oz and Kiwi membership:

Bishop: We talked not only about the Pacific Islands Forum, but other architecture in the region and we’ve agreed to continue to discuss how we can ensure that it best meets the needs of the region in the 21st Century.

Schwartz: Did the Foreign Minister say that he would like to see Australia and New Zealand either leave the Forum or take a backseat before Fiji would consider rejoining?

Bishop: No, he certainly didn’t say that and indicated that that was not his view. He wants to work with Australia and New Zealand.

Schwartz: I only ask because the Foreign Minister has been quoted as voicing those concerns in the past.

Bishop: Well he certainly didn’t voice them today.

The cover for Fiji is the agreement between the two foreign ministers to lead a discussion on ‘regional architecture to ensure it remains relevant to political, economic and social needs’. That’s a useful chat Suva and Canberra can have with the rest of the Forum, other big players like China, the US and the EU, and the plethora of other new partners from distant parts (Russia, UAE, Kuwait, Germany, Spain Israel, Turkey, Cuba….)

Australia loves the Forum. Fiji has its fresh creation, the Pacific Islands Development Forum (no Oz or Kiwi) and has continuing hopes for the Melanesian Spearhead Group (no Oz or Kiwi). So, lots of interesting stuff exists to inform this discussion. The South Pacific trails only ASEAN in its devotion to analysing its own regionalism.

Over at Devpolicy, Matthew Dornan and Tess Newton Cain put the boot into the absurdity of Australia and Fiji foisting another review—‘neither warranted nor appropriate’—on the rest of the South Pacific. They offer a good list of the myriad of recent reviews of regional architecture. To that list, I’d add the thoughts of Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin on the erosion of Oz soft power, the loss of Oz influence over regionalism, and the failings of the Pacific Plan.

On the problems of the Pacific and the shortfalls in the Pacific Plan as ‘master strategy’, see the most significant recent review, led by PNG’s Mekere Morauta, calling for more robust Pacific politics and ‘a bigger, better, deeper process of regionalism’. No problem getting Suva and Canberra to agree on the need to be robust. And following Morauta, this new regionalist effort is dripping with politics.

A Suva that can talk to Canberra rather than rail against the regional bully might be surprised at how ready the status quo power is to express dissatisfaction with what the status quo is delivering. Australia shares plenty of the region’s frustrations and it’s ready to yarn about anything, from tinkering to a total engine overhaul. But Oz isn’t going to leave the garage.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user astrid westvang.