Pacific regionalism at heart of Fiji Forum dissent
Fiji is asking the big questions about regionalism in the Pacific in raising concerns about the dominance of Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific Forum.
A New Zealand academic says Fiji is asking some of the big questions about regionalism in the Pacific in its opposition to rejoining the Pacific Islands Forum.
Associate professor of Pacific Studies at Auckland University, Damon Salesa, says this is driving its reluctance to reconnect with the regional body and its opposition to New Zealand and Australia staying members.
The New Zealand prime minister John Key said Fiji prime minister Frank Bainimarama was just mouthing off but the Fiji leader says New Zealand's statements on the Forum being reliant on its funding just goes to show how poor the relationship is.
Professor Salesa told Don Wiseman Fiji has realised it no longer needs the Forum as it once did.
DAMON SALESA: What they're seeing now is someone is prepared to challenge that claim to actually ask the about larger questions of regionalism. Whether metropolitan powers outside of Australia and New Zealand should be included. That's one of the reasons. The other thing that's really coming to a head is the foreign policy stance of Australia and New Zealand for those years was to not really work with Fiji and put it outside the club and now they're in the position of wanting them to come back in the club and Bainimarama is using that as a point of leverage.
DON WISEMAN: It's not just a case of bloody-mindedness on his part?
DS: There may be some of that but they gave him an opportunity to flex his muscle and I guess what we're seeing is he wants something out of this return and perhaps to be a leader. We see multiple attempts by Bainimarama to be a regional leader to claim a place at the forefront for Fiji which, especially outside of Melanesia, is far and away the largest economy, far and away the largest population. Many Fijians, including the Prime Minister, think that Fiji deserves a place of leadership and that's really what he's doing.
DW: What can you see happening to the Pacific Islands Forum then? Is it going to remain this organisation of 15 or 16 members or grow considerably or shrink? What do you think will happen?
DS: Admitting a nation with the power and economic influence of China would change the context completely and it would be hard to imagine what the regional function was if you had such a powerful nation sitting at the table. We've already seen Tonga come out and say that they don't wish for Australia and New Zealand to leave so the question is will Fiji enter on other terms. What Fiji discovered during those years in the wilderness is that they needed the Forum much less than they anticipated. They don't really need to come in. They can ask for a lot because it's not necessary to come back to the Forum.
DW: What about the fact that the Secretariat remains in Suva? Is that a relevant issue if Fiji isn't a member long-term?
DS: Obviously that's going to be a prickly point. It would be difficult to move it and with the problems of transportation in the Pacific, even air transport, Fiji's one of the most accessible places. It's difficult to imagine that they can move it without enormous cost and investment.
DW: So the most likely thing here is a modification that New Zealand and Australia make?
DS: It's really clear that Australia and New Zealand don't wish to leave. The question is will Bainimarama back down? Probably doubtful. There will probably be some sort of stand-off and Fiji probably won't return in the near future and will claim that is a reason.
DW: The Forum in the last few years seems to have become something of a diminished agency compared to what it had been earlier in the 2000s. Is that how it is in fact?
DS: There are still some really important regional agencies in it. We clearly saw some diminishment but the relevance of the Forum remains. Part of what's going on has been reinvestment and re-lending to Pacific nations and that has led to more bilateral relationships which have lessened the influence of some of the regional agencies but I think it's pretty clear that the Forum remains influential.
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