The visit of Fiji’s Prime Minister Josiah Voreqe Bainimarama to New Zealand last month was clearly aimed at fence-building; forgetting the past and moving forward towards more durable and harmonious relations.
In this regard, Mr Bainimarama, by his actions and utterances, scored a mini diplomatic coup.
In his talks with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, he displayed a measure of political maturity.
Instead of harping on the insult sustained by him for banning his visit to New Zealand after the 2006 coup, trade sanctions against Fiji, attempt to isolate Fiji from international organisations and failure to understand Fiji’s political and cultural matrix, he banked on the positives.
It was a sharp contrast from the negatives hurled at Mr Key during his visit to Fiji on June 9 and 10, 2016.
It resulted in an upturn in relations that is likely to be the benchmark for similar bilateral talks with other nations. It is a recognition of ‘real politic’ and symptomatic of the new direction in Fiji’s foreign policy under his stewardship.
He was therefore willing to play soft on issues such as the Pacific Islands Forum, Fiji’s Public Order Decree, and entry of New Zealand journalists to Fiji.
Melanesians and Polynesians
Pacific Island Nations (PINs) are principally divided into two dominant groups of Melanesians and Polynesians.
New Zealand, because of its colonial past, has had sharper relations with Polynesians (Samoa, Tonga and Cook Islanders for instance), who have had a marked representation in the New Zealand society; and New Zealand has used what is euphemistically called ‘check-book diplomacy’ to bring them in their fold.
Fiji is intrinsically regarded as a Melanesian dominant enclave and has spearheaded a group, the Pacific Island Development Forum (PIDF) in association with Vanuatu, Kiribati, Solomon and other countries.
Papua New Guinea, the largest Melanesia group of Islands within the Pacific corridor, is practically regarded as the satellite of Australia and poses a political challenge for Fiji.
Look North Policy
Under the new stance of Foreign Policy as detailed in his speech at the United Nations, (see story under Viewlink), Fiji does not wish to be seen as overly dependent on ‘Look North’ policy, particularly on its reliance on China for aid and exploitation of resources.
China’s total disregard for the findings of the International Court of Justice on the Spratly Islands has not gone well with the Western Powers and Asian nations.
India’s attempt to isolate Pakistan directly and China by association on the sore issue of openly supporting terrorism together with their abysmal record of deprivation of human rights has had a marked impact on UNO’s member-nations.
Trade and Terrorism
It is therefore not a coincidence that immediately after Mr Bainimarama’s visit last month, Mr Key led a high-powered delegation to India to talk on trade and terrorism.
The populist and isolationist trends in the United States as championed by the enigmatic Donald Trump have also sent shivers in diplomatic circles.
Fiji understands for its citizens to prosper on a long-term basis it must build on its record of six years of continuous growth of GDP.
In recent months, tourism from Australia and New Zealand has declined.
The two countries are no longer the guaranteed source of tourism for Fiji.
More island nations such as Vanuatu, Samoa and Cook Islands have taken a share of the patronage
Domestic and Global Compulsions
Fiji’s trade with New Zealand as well as Australia has been singularly unipolar since the colonial days.
It is apprehensive of its sea and land resources from being exploited by over-dependence on China.
Fiji’s emphasis has therefore shifted towards an “enduring, predictable and sustainable trade agreements” between Australasia and the Pacific Islands.
Mr Bainimarama’s visit is the beginning of the recognition of mutuality of respect for each other’s domestic compulsions and global disposition.
It is in the interest of both the parties to fortify the planks of this new relationship.
Mahendra Sukhdeo is a Fiji born academic, writer, researcher and author whose second edition of the book, ‘Aryan Avatars: From Prehistoric darkness to Settlers in the Pacific’ has been published by USP and is available through its Bookstore in Suva. Please read related stories in Homelink, Fijilink, Businesslink and Viewlink.