By Joey Tau
The regional circus continues with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and member states lobbying Fiji to remain part of the forum
Fiji’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama in recent months has asserted firmly that he wants Australia and New Zealand out of the regional forum space as members.
Bainimarama plans to boycott this year’s summit in Papua New Guinea, unless Australia and New Zealand change their status from full members to donors.
Critics say Fiji appears to be holding all the cards over any return to the leaders’ table at the Pacific Islands Forum.
Auckland University Associate Professor of Pacific Studies, Damon Salesa, says Fiji, having previously been suspended from the Forum, has found it does not need the agency as much as before.
“They gave him the opportunity to sort of flex his muscle and I guess what we are seeing is he wants something out of this return, and perhaps to be a leader. And 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.”
As Fiji shuffles her cards to have it her way, Fiji is demanding that if A/NZ remains as members than the membership should also include China in the forum, and the circus has not gone down well with some regional players apart from Australia and New Zealand.
The Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Tonga, Akilisi Pohiva has openly opposed the move by Fiji, saying many Tongans live in Australia and New Zealand, and it would be unwise to turn around and consider Fiji’s position to form a new regional organisation.
Pohiva firmly said Tonga will continue to remain an independent sovereign state and continue to support New Zealand and Australia as members of the Forum.
But being very Pacific and diplomatic, Pohiva is hoping the other island nations in the Pacific Islands Forum can encourage Fiji to return to the fold.
“Tonga respects the independence of every state in the South Pacific. Maybe Fiji has good reason to remain isolated. I still want to see New Zealand and Australia hang on to the Pacific Forum.”
Tonga’s Akilisi Pohiva says if the small nations stick together they could eventually convince Fiji, adding that issues of membership to the forum should be discussed at the summit.
Incoming chair and host to the PIF September leaders’ summit, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has said very little. The country’s foreign affairs representative, Rimbink Pato says the PNG government is still hopeful that Fiji’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama will attend this year’s summit.
Minister Pato also echoed the words of the Tongan leader, saying the PNG government is committed to the continued membership of New Zealand and Australia in the region.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key is in an undiplomatic guff reckons Fiji’s call to exit him and his counterpart Tony Abbot from forum space is a “joke”.
Mr Key told Auckland’s Radio Tarana that the activities of the Forum would be severely constrained without the funding it gets from Australia and New Zealand.
“Where would they get the money to do anything? And the answer is nowhere. None of them have that. So I don’t think you would want to take him terribly seriously – I’m not and I don’t think other people will be either. I think it is just Frank Bainimarama mouthing off, really.”
“When it comes to the Pacific Island Forum its Australia and New Zealand that put in the money and most typically and we are there to support our Pacific friends whether it’s Fiji or Tonga, Samoa or in Melanesia or Solomon Islands or PNG whatever it might be. So a Pacific Forum without Australia and New Zealand would be an interesting thing I suppose.”
The Samoan PM has also jumped into the foray to assert that the upcoming leaders meeting in PNG should be to discuss Fiji’s membership of the Forum once and for all. The decision will also determine the future home of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.
On the other hand, Australia has been doing it’s cheque book lobbying to get support from forum member states to justify its membership in the PIF.
It was evident when Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop, met with Tongan leader, Akilisi Pohiva to raise the issue. While Parliamentary Secretary to Bishop, Steven Ciobo, recently visited Fiji to hold talks with Fiji’s Foreign Minister, Inoke Kubuobola.
It is understood that Mr Ciobo expressed the view that Australia respectfully disagrees with being levered out of the PIF, and stressed that both the importance of the relationship with Fiji, and that Australia was a key neighbour within the Pacific.
Australia was also planning to defuse the tension with Suva over the forum and other regional organizations, and had arranged a meeting for March this year to discuss regional architecture but some member states had expressed a reluctance to attend.
But the pressure mounts at home for Bainimarama as rivals Ro Teimumu Kepa Biman Prasad urge him to put his childish politics aside and return to regional politics.
The duo has called on the Mr Bainimarama to address the issues at the forum and to end his raving commentaries.
“If he has any issues I think it would be appropriate for him to attend the Forum meeting and raise any issues he might have with Australia or New Zealand, and if he wants other countries to join the Forum then it is the Forum meeting which would be the right place for him to discuss this,” said Prasad.
Dr Prasad says Mr Bainimarama fails to recognise how vitally important the traditional partners are to the Fiji economy.
Time can only tell if Fiji’s firm stand out of the PIF will change the regional forum, and if Fiji is China’s ticket into forum space.