Australia’s rebuilding of diplomatic ties with Fiji has taken some observers by surprise, given the strength of opposition to Fiji’s 2006 military coup. Australia has been torn between principle and real politik since its high commissioner James Batley was ordered out of Fiji in 2009, followed by acting high commissioner Sarah Roberts in 2010.
The question now is whether Australia has moved too quickly to still have any influence in Fiji’s proposed return to democratisation.
After cancelling the country’s 2009 elections, Fiji has recently established a voter roll, which indicates that the country could be preparing for elections, nominally scheduled for 2014. Fiji has not enjoyed freedom of speech or a free media since the 2006 coup nor does it allow freedom of assembly. Ousted prime minister Laisenia Qarase, whom military commander Frank Bainimarama installed after the 2000 coup, has just been convicted of abuse of office in a long-running corruption case.
There also is no indication, though, whether independent observers will be allowed to monitor and verify the results of the elections, if and when they are held.
But Australia and New Zealand have now agreed with Fiji to exchange high commissioners in an act of diplomatic normalisation.
In part this move reflects a recognition that while Australia and New Zealand have taken a strong line against Fiji’s military government, their people have not, with tourists flocking to Fiji in record numbers. Having tens of thousands of citizens there each year implies a need for consular representation. Australia’s healthy trading relationship with Fiji also implies related diplomatic links.
There is also a growing desire to work with, rather than against, Fiji’s military government, given that the rift has also distanced both countries from some of their Pacific Island neighbours. This has created difficulties in influencing a region that both countries regard as their strategic backyard.
But perhaps most importantly, as the United States has recognised, China is increasing its influence in the Pacific generally and in Fiji in particular. To that end, the US response has been to tone down its criticism of the military government and to maintain healthy diplomatic relations.
As a close US ally and with strategic concerns of its own, Australia now appears to be following suit, with New Zealand not wanting to be left as the lone hard-line anti-Bainimarama state.
The question now will be, though, that if Fiji does not progress to elections, as promised, or if the elections are compromised, as feared, what Australia and New Zealand will have left in their diplomatic arsenal to pressure Fiji.
In the interim, it appears that with Australia and New Zealand’s diplomatic efforts having had almost no impact upon Fiji and now resuming more normal links, Bainimarama has won has won the diplomatic battle. If he again delays the elections, or subverts them, he may have also won the diplomatic war.