I want to thank the editor-in-chief of the Samoa Observer, Sano Malifa, for allowing me the opportunity to share my views in the newspaper last week on matters critical to the Pacific region. I also want to thank Mata’afa Keni Lesa for his time and hard work in conducting the interview.
And while I appreciate Russell Hunter’s compliments in his commentary on August 10 regarding my position on U.S. policy toward the Pacific Islands generally, I must take issue with his characterization of my understanding of Fiji as “one dimensional.” I am currently on my fourth trip to Fiji since the constitutional crisis of last year. As on previous trips, I am holding discussions with representatives of all sides of the issues facing Fiji including the heads of the Catholic, Methodist and Mormon Churches; deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase; Pacific Island ambassadors based in Suva; the U.S. Embassy and the American Chamber of Commerce; the Pacific Islands Forum; and friends from all aspects of the Fijian community, in addition to interim Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama.
Given my work in Fiji, I fully recognize that the problems the country confronts are multidimensional, resulting from its unique colonial history, complex ethnic mix, and chiefly, provincial, religious and family rivalries.
Indeed, I have been trying to combat the one-dimensional approach taken by Australia and New Zealand, which for most of the past twenty years of political turmoil in Suva has consisted simply of economic sanctions and visa restrictions on Fiji and of prodding the rest of the world to embrace similar punitive measures. The two countries have worked to convince the Commonwealth to oust Fiji, to have the EU shelve its assistance to Fiji’s sugar industry, to move the Pacific Islands Forum to suspend Suva’s membership and to persuade the United Nations to limit Fiji’s participation in peacekeeping operations.
Yet, other countries’ views and policies on Fiji differ from those of Australia and New Zealand. As Sir Michael Somare, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister said in an interview conducted in Fiji while he participated in the “Engaging with the Pacific” meeting hosted by Fiji’s interim government last month, “We [are] playing our cards differently because we believe that we belong to the region. We are Melanesians and it’s our tradition to help each other.” His views on engaging Fiji are shared by others in the region such as Dr. Feleti Sevele, the Prime Minister of Tonga, who last year questioned the purpose of Fiji's suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), saying that it was “pointless” to ostracize Fiji. Indeed, at the most recent meeting of the Forum in Vanuatu two weeks ago, there was open discussion of Fiji officially joining the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus regional free trade negotiations inaugurated by PIF leaders last year.
The methods of Canberra and Wellington, which have been in place for years, have proved not just ineffective, but counterproductive. The sanctions have punished average Fijians economically, and by making life in Fiji more difficult, Canberra and Wellington may well be sowing the seeds of civil unrest and violence. Moreover, neither Australia nor New Zealand has taken similar action against Indonesia, a country committing human rights atrocities in West Papua including torture and extrajudicial killings. In addition, as Australia and New Zealand attempt to strong-arm Fiji into complying with their dictates, China has moved in to fill the vacuum, offering grants, concessionary loans and enhanced trade opportunities.
Interim Prime Minister Bainimarama has just returned from an extended trip to Shanghai where he said last week that China “is the only nation that can help assist Fiji in its reforms because of the way the Chinese think. They think outside the box… We need infrastructure, we need water, we need electricity. Australia and New Zealand and America, none of those nations are going to provide that. We know that now because of their policies towards us so let's forget about these nations.”
Of course, as a country with global economic reach, China’s efforts to provide economic and financial assistance to island nations are neither new nor unique. After all, China is also a part of the Pacific community, just as much as Japan, New Zealand, Australia and the United States.
Clearly, interim Prime Minister Bainimarama has taken a number of unfortunate steps and made some inopportune comments in recent months. But we should not forget that he has not altered his plans to draft a constitution reflecting the country’s unique culture and history, or his promises to enact electoral reforms that will establish equal suffrage and hold free, fair and democratic elections by 2014, all with the aim of ending Fiji’s coup culture once and for all.
I believe the United States should take into account the interim Prime Minister’s stated intent. Further, the United States should better appreciate that the interests of Australia and New Zealand may diverge – sometimes significantly – from those of Washington.
Given those differences, and given the failure of the policies of Australia and New Zealand, I believe that the United States should engage rather than impose sanctions against Fiji. Washington should offer Suva the resources to facilitate and accelerate reform of its electoral process, redraft its constitution and better ensure successful elections. In addition, Washington should work with other nations from the region to assist all sides in Fiji in building strong institutions capable of sustaining democracy and peace.
Washington should also offer to help strengthen the country’s economy – and hence Fiji’s long-term stability – through the promotion of bilateral trade and investment, particularly in its vital tourism industry, in a way that is environmentally sustainable and responsive to local needs.
Furthermore, Washington should offer its premier universities and its leading nongovernmental organizations, which have the expertise, the experience and the ability to provide the sort of assistance Fiji may seek as it moves beyond the current difficulties in its political development toward democracy and political stability.
Beyond aiding a friend during a critical period – a worthy endeavor in and of itself – greater U.S. engagement with Fiji would provide an important demonstration of the Obama Administration’s declared interest in developing a proactive and sustained approach to the Pacific region.
Toward that end, after some 15 years of absence from the region, I am pleased that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will soon reopen offices in the Pacific, both in Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Pacific, Kurt Campbell, have already made progress in enhancing U.S. relations with Pacific Island nations, and I commend them for their work. I believe they have demonstrated the sort of nuanced and multidimensional understanding of Fiji and of the Pacific Island region that has been sorely lacking from U.S. policy for far too long.