From all points of view, the two-day visit of Prime Minister John Key to Fiji last week opened up as many challenges as opportunities and the effective meeting and utilisation of which be a two-sided equation.
The chemistry between Mr Key and Fiji’s Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama is yet to evolve into a plausible leadership combination for better times ahead, but it was easy to see that both were trying hard to make things work.
If Mr Bainimarama took cudgels against New Zealand and its government, he had good reasons for doing so – from his point of view.
Anger and hope
His speech at the State Banquet hosted in honour of Mr Key at the Grand Pacific Hotel on July 9 was punctuated with anger, frustration, disappointment and disgruntlement – all of the past in which New Zealand was seen as one friend who betrayed.
The speech was also marked by expectations, hope and optimism.
Mr Bainimarama was thankful to New Zealand for its financial, material and military support as his country went through the worst aftermath of natural disaster. Tropical Cyclone Winston that ravaged through the country on February 20, 2016 brought many countries rushing to help; of these New Zealand stood out in monetary and emotional terms.
Mr Bainimarama was grateful but set the tone for the future.
“Your aid must complement the implementation of our policy agenda, not undermine it. After all, we do not always want to be dependent on aid. And this can only be achieved if we work in a collaborative manner. Work with us because there are many lucrative business opportunities for New Zealand companies given the liberalisation and modernisation of the Fijian economy under my Government,” he said.
Mr Bainimarama believes that Fiji and New Zealand can strike a closer bond and a great partnership, provided these are based on mutual confidence and trust.
“Welcome to Fiji. It has been a long time between drinks, as they say – 10 years since we last had a New Zealand Prime Minister here, even though we now welcome over 100,000 Kiwis every year. We hope that like them, Fiji will be where happiness finds you,” Mr Bainimarama said.
In that same breath, he quipped, “But just don’t talk about the Rugby.”
There are still a number of imponderables that Mr Key should work through to regain the confidence, and more important, the level of friendship that is worthy of a powerful neighbour.
There are three counts on which Mr Key has not seen any success.
Firstly, his entreaty to return to the Pacific Islands Forum had Mr Bainimarama indicate an instant refusal. The Fijian government would not think of re-joining the regional bloc (from which it was ousted in 2009 and reinstated in 2014), unless Australia and New Zealand are ousted or downgraded their role and China brought in as a member.
Secondly, Mr Bainimarama appeared to have been silent when Mr Key asked if he would support the candidacy of Helen Clark to the post of Secretary General of the UN. But having heard his attack on the former New Zealand Prime Minister, Fiji is unlikely to be sympathetic or supportive.
Thirdly, Fiji still has a closed mind on the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus Trade negotiations, saying that it is no longer a promising instrument of development and economic growth.
We will analyse each of these issues in our forthcoming editions.
But for the present, we would like to believe that New Zealand and Fiji are on the threshold of a new plane of relationship. They need to work together for the betterment of their peoples.
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