Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Last Foreign Policy Bender - Australia's Dwindling Influence In The Pacific.

Revisiting an earlier post titled "Crouch, Hold Or Engage- Australia's Failing Pacific Policy",
Australia's foreign relations are presently being ascertained, analysed and audited.

While Australia's Foreign Minster Kevin Rudd stopped over for a chat with U.S Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton in Washington D.C, on his way back from the 35th Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) meeting in London on 28th April 2011, there are reasons to believe that some changes are in store regarding the policies of Australia.

(Video posted below)

In the press conference post-meeting, Clinton heaped praises on Rudd's efforts:
"Minister Rudd was very influential in helping us to work toward a greater, more relevant involvement in the Pacific-Asian institutions, such as joining the East Asian Summit. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is exploring ways to expand opportunity, is critical, and APEC and ASEAN are two other organizations where we work together."

There is much speculation whether that particular chat with Clinton was simply a social visit or a one-way dressing down, considering the results of Rudd's failed initiatives.

Rudd's uncanny ability to pursue tangents in Foreign Affairs are not in dispute. The results of the such cantankerous detours, at the expense of more important concerns are at the fore.

The question of whether those praises on Rudd are equally shared from all quarters, is a question worth asking, given the dismissal results of Rudd's handling of the Foreign affairs issues.

The Diplomat web publication, highlighted in a 2010 opinion article titled:"Rudd's Pacific Plan Lost At Sea" is prima facie evidence of Rudd's over reach:
[...]Rudd’s vision for an Asia-Pacific super forum was first outlined in a June 2008 speech to the Asia Society Australasia, entitled ‘It’s Time to Build an Asia-Pacific Community.’ Delivered shortly before his first and somewhat delayed visit as prime minister to Indonesia and Japan, the proposal called for ‘strong and effective regional institutions’ to address issues including security, terrorism, natural disasters, disease, trade, energy and food.

While acknowledging the region’s existing architecture, the new Australian leader argued for the creation of ‘a regional institution which spans the entire Asia-Pacific region—including the United States, Japan, China, India, Indonesia and the other states of the region.’ It was to be capable of engaging in the ‘full spectrum of dialogue, cooperation and action on economic and political matters and future challenges related to security.’

Rudd also stated that he didn’t intend the ‘diminution of any of the existing regional bodies.’

‘APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Plus Three and ASEAN itself will continue to play important roles, and longer-term may continue in their own right or embody the building blocks of an Asia Pacific community,’ he said.

The new institution was immediately panned by Australia’s Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop, who described it as ‘another example of the prime minister just coming up with policy whims, floating it out there without doing any of the necessary groundwork.’

She was not alone.
Graham Davis, former journalist wrote an article that appeared in Pacific Scoop titled "How Australia's Foreign and Pacific Policy Is Hostage To One Man's Ego", was scathing of Rudd:
Anyone else might be content to strut the international stage as Rudd does, posing as one of the big players and studiously trying to paper over Australia’s status as a middle ranking power at best.

Only someone with a world class ego would claim credit – as Rudd does – for being a prime instigator of the no-fly zone over Libya. That’s right. Not Barak Obama, not Nicolas Sarkozy but Kevin – the Tintin lookalike Wonder Boy from Down Under.
Although, both Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd criss-crossed the planet with the unsure objective of firmly anchoring Australia's drifting foreign policy; Brisbane Times article singled out the mending of ties effort, a central priority during Gillard's Asia tour:

IT COULD have got a bit nasty, given the pressures on Julia Gillard to put her stamp on foreign policy and her inexperience in the field, but the Prime Minister's visit to Beijing has shown both sides determined to make the best of the fast-expanding relationship between Australia and China.

Gillard has essentially returned Canberra's handling of the relationship to the patient, pragmatic and optimistic approach that her predecessors have found to be the best, ending the prickly tone in some of the messages of the former prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Pacific regional observers pointed out repeatedly for a different approach to Fiji for some time now.

Fiji Sun article features Andrew Drysdale's opinion

The entire excerpt of Drysdales article:

Australia’s failed relationship with Fiji
Australia’s relationship with Fiji have featured in both political and media discussions of late. As someone who grew up in Fiji, and who played a part in rebuilding the economy following the 1987 coups, I should like to add to that debate.In the aftermath of Fiji’s 2006 takeover of the elected Qarase government by Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, the Australian government imposed sanctions and took a hard line against the new military government.
This in turn (and not unnaturally) resulted in strong negative feelings towards Australia within the Fiji government; and it should be said, throughout Fiji.
One typically large and friendly doorman at a Fijian hotel asked recently “the Australians like us and come to see us - why their government hates us?” Standing in the lobby of a five star hotel looking across the pool to the islands beyond; it is a hard question to answer.
After several years of reverses following political disturbances, floods, difficulties in the sugar industry and the global economic downturn, Fiji’s economy has turned the corner.
The latest Standard and Poor report has revised Fiji’s long term foreign currency ratings upwards from “stable” to “positive”. The report states “the positive outlook on Fiji’s foreign currency rating reflects the improvement in Fiji’s external position, including the level of foreign exchange reserves.”
A recent Fiji government International bond issue for US$250 million was fully subscribed with the order book closing almost three times oversubscribed within three hours of opening. Even the IMF in its most recent report says there are “encouraging signs of recovery”.
If the Australian government’s sanctions were intended to place economic pressure on Fiji then one could be forgiven for wondering how effective they have been.
Presumably to the chagrin of the Australian government, this financial improvement is in large part due to a rapid growth in the tourism sector, particularly from this country.
Australian visitor arrivals to Fiji last year were a record and Australia now represents 53 per cent of all tourist arrivals; hence the validity of the Fijian doorman’s question.
What is particularly puzzling is that Commodore Bainimarama did not overthrow the Qarase government in order to enshrine dominance by the indigenous Fijian over the Indian people as the previous coups have sought to do - and as the Qarase government was actually doing. Quite the contrary, his stated reasons for his actions were to bring about an electoral process where there will be equality of rights for all citizens of the country.
He has repeatedly promised elections in September 2014 under a new constitution that ensures a balanced electoral system based on the principles contained in his “Peoples charter for change, peace and progress”. This document is publicly available on the Fiji government website.
He is also dealing firmly with corruption that had become endemic under previous governments. Whilst it is right that Australia should protest at the overthrow of an elected government, to continue to alienate such a government and its policies is indeed difficult to understand.

That is not to say all is sunshine and light in Fiji. Quite the reverse, the media is censored, meetings are constrained, a number of judicial findings are difficult to comprehend, and there are reports of individuals being taken to the army camp and abused.
Nevertheless, when viewed from a Fiji perspective there is a dichotomy in Australia’s policies. Without intending any disrespect to the Peoples Republic of China, for the Australian prime minister to say on her recent state visit to Beijing “Our policy is to positively engage with China.

A China that’s fully engaged in our region is good for the region, it’s good for Australia, it’s good for China” at a time when one of Australia’s own leading newspapers reports that Ms. Gillard’s visit “is taking place in the midst of the largest crackdown on Chinese civil society in two decades” reaffirms the argument that trade, money and politics are inextricably linked.
By contrast Australia’s policy of alienating Fiji makes it easy to imagine that Fiji is insignificant in Australia’s trade and presumably therefore expendable politically.

The Rudd government took a hard line in 2006 but in doing so painted itself into a corner.
Policies intended to bring pressure on Commodore Bainimarama have in fact created a vacuum in the political and economic balance of the Pacific - and China is now filling that vacuum.
Australian companies have failed to win a single major contract in Fiji for several years; losing out mostly to Chinese competitors, many of whom are implementing Chinese Aid programmes. Chinese are also buying up large tracts of land (6000 acres in one recent deal) and are building the much needed new infrastructure.

Unless Australia changes its attitude and policies towards Fiji soon, Australian companies may well become invisible in the future commercial life of Fiji.At one point Australia sought to have the United Nations cease using Fijian soldiers in peacekeeping duties. The Fijian army is to a large part, armed and trained by the UN for these peacekeeping duties - duties that they have performed with great credit.

These soldiers remit a portion of their UN salaries home to their families and this forms a very important part of Fiji’s economic and social life. Until he goes to an election, Commodore Bainimarama’s strength is derived from the army. Had Australia been successful, Fiji would have almost certainly turned to China to support its military. In this event Australia would have had on its own doorstep a politically alienated country that was increasingly allied with China and whose military was trained and armed by China.

Fortunately the UN refused to go along with this plan. That this was even contemplated by Australia would demonstrate a lack of understanding of the forces at play in the Pacific.
Australia has used the Forum Secretariat as a vehicle to alienate Fiji from its neighbours.
They have also used Aid funding in an attempt to drive a wedge between Fiji and the other Pacific Island Nations.

In the early days this worked; millions of dollars of Australian taxpayer’s money to the relatively impoverished Pacific Island Nations is a powerful weapon.
However in a sign that things are changing, these Island leaders recently elected Commodore Bainimarama as leader of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) - Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Kanaks of New Caledonia. These are the largest Island Nations in the Pacific.

They have the largest landmass, significant natural resources and the largest populations.
The MSG has now publicly supported the Fiji Government’s policies and Bainimarama’s roadmap towards elections. It should be noted that whilst this was going on, Australia’s foreign minister was on the other side of the globe calling for a no-fly zone over Libya.

The Fijian Prime Minister has just returned from an official visit to Indonesia where he met with the Indonesian president, opened a Fiji Embassy office and held talks with Indonesian fisheries organisations and business houses.He also met their senior military officers. Agreement was reached on co-operation between the Fijian and Indonesian military which includes training and possible joint exercises to be conducted in Fiji.

So, what does this mean? It means that every one of the major island nations circling the Australian coast from east of Sydney to north of Darwin are supporting Commodore Bainimarama and his policies. These countries have large natural resources and a combined population of over 245 million people - indeed their numbers dwarf Australia by 10 times.

It is entirely possible that these new political alliances may result in Australia’s foreign policies having the effect, not of isolating Fiji; but rather of isolating Australia.
Australia was behind the move to throw Fiji out of the British Commonwealth, and in this they were successful. But one might ask - so what? The Fijian people remain loyal to the Queen because of the covenants contained in the 1874 Deed of Cession where their chiefs unequivocally ceded Fiji to Queen Victoria, her heirs and successors. This deep-felt loyalty is to the Queen, not to some artificial and impotent remanent of the British Raj. A public relations victory for Australia perhaps, but in terms of bringing about real change it was a failure.

That the Australian government has consistently failed to understand Fiji, its politics and its people is a matter of historical record. To quote Sir Robert Foster, the last British governor of Fiji in his final dispatch to the Colonial Office on the eve of Fiji’s independence in 1970 “Relations with Australia may be more difficult.
Many here consider that the Australian Government has a large debt to repay, because Fiji has been exploited by big business from there and that official Australian attitudes are too often overbearing and when they are not, then indifferent”.
That was forty one years ago - regrettably it would seem very little has changed.

Andrew Drysdale's article was refuted by Dr. Max Quanchi, an academic in University of South Pacific (USP) The entire excerpt Quanchi's response:

Fiji, Aussie ties
writer : Dr Max Quanchi USP
Readers of the Fiji Sun (30/4/2011) were misled by Andrew Drysdale when he argued that Fijians think Australia has a debt to Fiji for past commercial exploitation and overbearing and indifferent attitudes.His source for claiming that anger towards Australia was found “throughout Fiji” was a doorman at a five-star hotel.
His claims that Australia “consistently failed to understand Fiji” were contradicted in the same edition of the Fiji Sun, when a full page advertisement invited organisations from Fiji civil society to apply for AusAID grants of FJ$20,000 to FJ$200,000.
He also claimed Australian visitor arrivals made up 53 per cent of visitors, but in the papers that day the Bureau of Statistics announced the figure was 40 per cent (for the month of February).

Newspapers the same day also carried a photograph of Australia’s Acting High Commissioner at a hand-over ceremony for a FJ$250,000 boat to Health officials on Ovalau and another full page advertisement invited Fijians to apply for full time study grants under generous Australian Development Scholarship (ADS) and Australia Leadership Award (ALA) programs.
These are not evidence of a “failed” relationship, but suggest a carefully thought out, long-term, bilateral relationship. Mr Drysdale has merely repeated a tired, negative refrain.
He has not acknowledged the many little AusAID, non-government and private development projects scattered across Fiji which demonstrate that while bureaucrats and diplomats might be in a stand-off situation, there is a valuable relationship being continued at the local level.
His claims that the former Rudd government took a hard line towards Fiji, ignores the 11 years of the John Howard government when not only Fiji, but the Pacific generally “fell off the map”.

Rudd in his first year reversed this trend by ending the Nauru refugee camp experiment, signed the Kyoto Agreement, hosted a Pacific Forum meeting in Cairns, reinstalled Pacific Affairs at a Parliamentary Secretary level and visited Port Moresby to make a joint declaration with PNG’s Michael Somare on a new relationship with the Pacific.

There are several other unsupported claims by Mr Drysdale such as Australia being responsible for plans to end Fiji’s participation in UN peacekeeping duties, that Australia caused Fiji to be expelled from the Commonwealth, imposed sanctions in order to destroy the Fiji economy, that development aid was used a bargaining chip in diplomatic deals, and that the Pacific Forum was in some way compromised by Australian involvement.
No evidence is offered to suggest any of these populist and indeed improbable claims are accurate.
Finally Mr Drysdale relies on a comment made by the departing British Governor at the time of independence that Australian-Fijian relations might turn out to be difficult.

Mr Drysdale might have gone back further in history to the 1860s and 1870s when there was a “Fiji Rush” of Australians to settle on so-called Polynesia Company land, or the 1880s when there were moves in Australia to link Fiji formally to the colony of Victoria, and later to include Fiji in a wider federal union including Australia and New Zealand.
Fijians now migrate to and from Australia, form a large part of the NRL player list, and go back and forth for medical support, training and education, “Australian idol” and shopping.
Fiji and Australia’s histories are entwined through these and many more episodes in the 19th and 20th centuries.
That they now follow separate diplomatic pathways is not unexpected. They were both once British colonies, linked by British shipping lines, telegraph and air routes, but are now independent nations, and seek to be key players and even leaders in the region.

After a two-year survey of 38 universities, 50 museums, galleries, libraries and archives and a 100 or so government and non-government agencies in Australia with connections to the Pacific, which resulted in a 203 page report, my colleagues Samantha Rose and Clive Moore and I concluded that the Pacific Islands were important to Australia and that the relationship was “personal, geopolitical, historical and permanent”.

We also concluded that “this complexity and mix of bilateral and multilateral relationships now demands a high level of sophistication, long-term planning and collaborative development”.
The bilateral relationship with Fiji since Australia became a Commonwealth in 1901, and Fiji became independent in 1970, has not always been characterised by the sophistication and collaboration we identified. Andrew Drysdale’s tirade adds little to improvement in this relationship.

In contrast to his closing comment that “very little has changed” in the relationship since 1970, I would argue that the relationship has changed unrecognisably over the last 150 years, and even more so since 1970.
Today many more new links are being forged. Confusing diplomatic rhetoric with actual ground level, people-to-people relationships is part of the problem.
Governments have their own domestic, national and international agenda, but villagers see the world through different lens.

The Fiji Sun’s readers deserve a more thorough analysis supported by evidence and a deep view of history than they were presented with last Saturday.

 Dr Quanchi stresses he is writing in a personal capacity.
  Croz Walsh's blog posting points out, Dr. Sandra Tarte's sentiments
The dilemmas facing Australian diplomacy and foreign policy in the region include the obvious ones that have been highlighted in the media debate. 

Most prominent is the fact that Australia’s efforts to isolate the Fiji government have encouraged Fiji to actively seek new partnerships, including most notably with China. This has led to the growing influence of China, and what seems to be a commensurate loss of influence by Australia. Another obvious dilemma is that Fiji’s suspension from the Forum has only served to undermine what was once the region’s premier regional organisation and shifted the political focus to other regional and international groupings.

Fiji has made it clear it does not seek an early return to the Forum’s fold but is cultivating new alignments – the Melanesian Spearhead Group, the Pacific Small Islands Developing States group, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Association of South East Asian Nations (where it has sought observer status).
Most recently was Lowy Institute's Jenny-Howard jones who advocated in a 180 degree course correction, in Australian Government's policy towards Fiji:
In a speech to the Press Club in February about Australia's interests in the Middle East, Mr Rudd said: 'a creative middle power recognises that we have to work in partnerships and coalitions to achieve change — including with non-traditional partners to establish better understanding of the issue at hand and to come up with better informed solutions...Australia always stands ready to propose new partnerships to tackle new problems, to tackle old problems in new ways' [...]

But in promoting Australia's credentials as a creative middle power on the world stage in the context of the Arab awakening, Rudd has inadvertently drawn more attention to Australia's diplomatic failings in Fiji [...]Kevin Rudd believes Australian foreign policy should make a difference. If Australia wants to maintain its credibility as the dominant power in this region and be a creative middle power on the world stage, it should start by making a difference in Fiji.

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