Ranking Fiji in Australia’s South Pacific interests
6 Mar 2014|

Fourth place

Canberra is offering Fiji a promotion in the hierarchy of Australian interests in the South Pacific.

Ranking how Australia sees the South Pacific gives some regional context for the bilateral play as Canberra tries to hit the reset button with Suva. This column offers an ordering of the relative importance and status Australia gives its relationships in the South Pacific. It follows the thoughts offered in previous columns (here, here, and here) on the clash of competing visions for the region between Canberra and Suva and on the range of goodies Australia is offering Fiji for normalisation.

Pecking orders are always problematic in foreign affairs because the range of issues and interests are so diverse. Being a hack, not a High Commissioner, I can ignore such concerns. But Australian governments have occasionally been so blunt as to do league ladders: the Howard government’s 1997 Foreign Affairs White Paper and the Gillard government’s Asian Century White Paper, for example.

Taking advantage of that tradition, here’s the hierarchy of Australian interests in the South Pacific and what I’ve called the Australian Arc. Money always talks in such matters, so beside the Island countries you’ll find Australia’s aid spend for 2013-14, using the revised figures issued by the Abbott government in January.

  1. Papua New Guinea and New Zealand
  2. Solomon Islands Vanuatu and Timor Leste
  3. Pacific Islands, Samoa, Tonga
  4. Fiji
  5. France and its Pacific territories
  6. Nauru, Kiribati, Other Small Pacific Islands
  7. The Pacific Community and other regional organisations

1. PNG ($448.5m) and New Zealand. The two at the top are the easiest pick because this is unchanged since the 19th century. PNG was the colony that mattered to Oz. But now Australia sees the Pacific through the lens of PNG; see this ASPI paper describing PNG as more of a success than Australia had any right to expect.

The Kiwis, of course, still have the option of coming to their senses and joining the Australian Commonwealth, under the terms of our constitution. (Clarification: the constitutional option for New Zealand to convert to Oz is correct but the rest of the sentence falls into the category of poor jest—on both sides of the Tasman.)

2. Solomon Islands ($90.4m), Vanuatu ($40.9) and Timor Leste($70m). These three, along with PNG, are members of the Australian Arc or Australia’s Arc of Responsibility (PDF).

By its actions and words, Australia has given Solomons, Vanuatu and Timor security guarantees equal to the treaty assurance we’ve given PNG. The five countries in these top two categories are all recipients of Australian security promises via treaties (PNG and NZ) or declarations in successive defence white papers. The nature of that guarantee has expanded beyond protecting external security to a range of commitments to maintain their internal stability. In an ad hoc manner, Australia has expanded its role as security guarantor to match its position as the region’s largest aid donor.

3. Pacific Islands Forum ($20m approx), Samoa ($23.1m), Tonga ($17.2m). Now it gets interesting. In years gone by, Fiji would have ranked well ahead of the Forum. Hell, the Ratu Mara view was that Fiji created the Forum. By kicking Fiji out, Australia and New Zealand greatly elevated the Forum’s importance and caused huge offence to Fiji; the see-saw in recent years has been importance up, effectiveness down. The stoush with Fiji has had the Forum in a holding pattern that has trended downwards. Helping the Forum is part of what Australia wants from helping Fiji. The Australian view of the Forum as the preeminent regional organisation plays to Australia’s desire to have a major role in regional groupings as an expression of its insider rights as a South Pacific nation. For Australia, the Forum’s, not just a vehicle for regional consensus, but a mechanism to impose and police norms, with Fiji as the greatest example of this power.

The pushback from Fiji has been fierce. Suva has been talking up the Melanesian Spearhead Group and has now created the Pacific Islands Development Forum (unofficial motto: Kick the Kangaroos, Kiss off the Kiwis!). With that motto in mind, here’s Bainimarama speaking at the inaugural PIDF summit:

Why do we need a new body, a new framework of cooperation? Because the existing regional structure for the past four decades—the Pacific Islands Forum—is for Governments only and has also come to be dominated only by a few. In too many instances, it no longer genuinely represents our interests and needs.

Samoa and Tonga are on level three because of their standing in the region and their friendship and connections with Australia and New Zealand, confirmed over decades. On the aid measure and their positions beyond the Australian Arc, they need to be on the third rung, not the second. On the matter merely of how they treat Australian High Commissioners, they rank above Fiji in the Oz hierarchy—for now, anyway.

4. Fiji ($34.2)

5. France and its Pacific territories. Putting Fiji nearly on the same level as France is just as cheeky as putting Fiji below the Forum. Anthony Bergin has these thoughts on what France is contributing to the region and how Australia could lift the relationship, while Peter Jennings delivers this summing up of the remarkable change in the way France is viewed:

In the Pacific, France’s position has gone full circle from the unhappy nuclear-testing, insurgency fighting 1980s to a point where the French territories are now the model of stability and the envy of the region. France is a net contributor to Pacific Island security and one of very few countries prepared to do more to support more regional cooperation.

Australia has plenty of reasons to look beyond the old aches of Francophobia to see a France that can be a power of the Pacific.

Now some thoughts on the country on the fourth level: Long years of diplomatic nastiness and disappointments out of Suva have impacted the way Australia thinks about the region. Once, Fiji would have sat naturally on the second level, certainly ahead of the Forum and any contenders from Polynesia. This league ladder suggests that Australia will do what it needs to get some normalisation with Fiji, but it doesn’t have to accept Suva’s assessment of where it sits in the firmament. As a revisionist state seeking to change the regional system, Fiji deserves plenty of attention, but not undue weight in the regional hierarchy it’s attacking.

The interests of other players should encourage Australia not to fret too much about the Melanesian Spearhead Group or Fiji’s new version of the Forum. PNG and others in the region have plenty of selfish reasons not to accept Fiji’s view of its central importance.

In offering normalisation and seeking a relaxation of the fight over the regional system, Australia wants to see Fiji take a higher spot on the prestige/precedence ladder (as seen from Canberra, of course). The shift doesn’t have to be discussed using the language of hierarchy or relative importance. That’s the beauty of the ‘family’ image Julie Bishop used in Suva, while acknowledging Fiji’s right to broaden its diplomatic options:

Australia, likewise, is always seeking to develop new friendships, new networks, new alliances, new partnerships around the world. And we would expect a strong regional power like Fiji to develop relationships with other countries. But of course, Australia and New Zealand have longstanding relations with Fiji. We have very strong historic ties, military ties, trade and investment ties. Hundreds of thousands of Australians come to Fiji every year as their choice of a tourism destination. So while all countries should be seeking to forge new relationships in the interests of peace and greater prosperity, at the end of the day your friends and your family are what count. And Fiji, and Australia and New Zealand, should consider themselves as family.

Using that metaphor, it has been a family argument of Freudian fury or Shakespearean temper. And there’s no going back to what was before. Beyond Fiji’s election, though, there’s a chance for some calming of the clash of interests.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Stephanie Keeney.