Mahendra Sukhdeo –
In September, Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama reshuffled his cabinet that, among other changes, saw the transfer of Ratu Inoke Kubuabola as the Defence Minister and assumed the role of Foreign Affairs Minister.
These changes were made arguably in anticipation of his address at the 71st United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 20, 2016.
In his address, Bainimarama spelt out the crux of the policy shift and stated that he intended to redefine certain policies and give ‘A new direction.’
Essentially, the redefinition and the new direction reflected oh Fiji’s new found confidence and were based on two fundamental axioms.
One, henceforth, the foreign policy would be predicated on its external trade policy and the emphasis would be on marketing its impressive array of authentic consumer products and services under the ‘Fijian Made’ brand such as Fiji Water, Pure Fiji Cosmetic, Fiji Timber, Fiji Kava and other manufactured goods together with pushing Fiji as a prime holiday destination in association with ‘Fiji Airways’, its flagship airline.
Fiji already has gained a measure of foothold for its manufactured goods in the Pacific island nations and littoral countries such as Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada.
Now the objective would be to intensify marketing strategies by extending the marketing destinations. The National Export Strategy has already spent over F$12 million in boosting exports since 2009.
In practical terms, it is translated as calibrating together the governing arms of the departments of foreign affairs, trade, tourism and aviation.
Further, it also means that the functionaries in these departments would have to work in congruence with one another as well as with the manufacturers and exporters to test their capacities to provide for the existing and new trading partners. The trading policy shift also considers the goal of accessing ‘international standard’ goods and services that would materially benefit the Fiji consumers.
With an expanding Fijian Diaspora, together with the demand for pure, fresh and hygienic products, ‘Fiji Made’ goods are likely to be attractive in the existing and newer locales for which Fiji should gear itself with the right supply and marketing logistics.
The China Equation
However, it is the second plank of the foreign policy shift that is likely to impact significantly on Fiji’s relations with other countries, more particularly, China.
Long before the onset of Cyclone Winston, because of the bellicosity of its traditional foreign partners, Fiji was left in the cold.
China, India and Malaysia filled the gap.
Fiji has been experiencing a measure of isolation as it drifted towards the stranglehold of China. Fiji realises that its value system is different; its ascription of human rights is not of the same character as that of China, its multicultural demography is different from that of China and more intrinsically the respectful manner of treating a sovereign partner is equally far apart.
More recently, China has exploited its new-found grandeur of an emerging superpower by imposing its control on the Spratly Islands, unilaterally supporting Pakistan’s export of mujahedeen (terrorists) into Kashmir Valley and rejecting calls for human rights violations in China.
Fiji will now “rethink on some of its foreign policy positions and objectives” and “re-evaluate” its central framework of being “friends to all and enemies to none.”
Values and Principles
The corollary is that henceforth Fiji would choose friends “in a more discerning manner and align with those countries that share our underlying values and principles.”
Bainimarama spells out specifically the values such as “mutual respect, respect for sovereignty and resolving of disputes by peaceful means and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs”. And above all, Bainimarama emphasises the requirement of the universal code of “adherence to international law, human rights and human dignity”.
Fiji would thus gradually opt to “seek closer relations” with like-minded nations, especially those that respect human rights.
This is a seismic shift in foreign policy.
Will the West and more particularly New Zealand and Australia take concrete measures to strengthen relations with Fiji that was ruptured after the 2006 coup?
The West has been known to be pontifical, verbose and dictatorial in their relations with Fiji. This cannot continue. The littoral old partners would have to treat Fiji with more sensitivity.
Both Australia and New Zealand should recognise the primacy of Fiji in the Pacific Island Nations (PINs) and cannot be seen to be leading the Pacific Forum and they should allow inclusion of China and India in the Forum
The policy shift has evolved out of the warm relationship between Suva and Wellington as well as between Suva and Canberra.
The gratuitous assistance provided by the two countries has given rise to this shift. It is for Australia and New Zealand to rise to the occasion to capture the moment of opportunity.
Bainimarama delivered this ground-breaking address when Fiji is seeking to be the first Pacific member-nation of the UN Human Rights Council commencing in 2018.
While some may view the address as grandstanding for Fiji’s bid for a seat in the Human Rights Council, the explicit tenor of the text indicates the veracity of Bainimarama regime’s “new found confidence” to initiate a ground-breaking foreign policy.
Additional reading: Fiji revisits friendship and foreign policy under Viewlink.
Mahendra Sukhdeo is a Fiji-born academic, writer, researcher and author. He is an astute observer of Fiji politics. The scone edition of his book, ‘Aryan Avatars,’ published by USP is now available at its Bookstore in Suva, Fiji.