Bullying Fiji

The ongoing diplomatic fracas between New Zealand and Fiji stemming from the peaceful coup staged by Vice Commodore Frank Bainimarama and his military allies two years ago has taken on the aspect of farce. Although the Commodore is the personification of a petty despot, in equal measure vainglorious and arrogant, in this stoush he may actually be right. The reason is that New Zealand’s approach to his rule is hypocritical, neo-imperialist , short-sighted and and heavy handed in application.

The 2006 coup was precipitated by the multiple failures of Fijian “democracy,” specifically pervasive corruption rooted in a system of ethnic preferences and disproportionate representation. The Fijian military is a classic example of an “arbitrator” or “mediator” military in a mass praetorian society, so it is always the default option when political conflicts come to a head and threaten social stability. Such was the case in 2006, and the justification for the coup was to eliminate corruption and revamp the political system in order to eliminate the sources of patronage and preference that are the root causes of its endemic malaise. As it turns out, although the military intervention has been condemned by New Zealand and Australia, many Fijians and other island states see it in  a more favourable light. Even those who view the military intervention as a political setback recognize that it is not just a military matter but in fact an internal political conundrum that is for Fijians to resolve.

Condemnation from Anglophone outsiders is seen as a colonial vestige that is counter-productive and a violation of Fijian sovereignty. It is seen as hypocritical because New Zealand enjoys trade and diplomatic relations with countries such as The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iran, countries with less than stellar human rights records (and in the case of the two Arab states, oligarchical rule), and yet says nothing negative about them. Since the Fijian human rights record is demonstrably better than that of New Zealand’s Middle Eastern partners, it appears that New Zealand is being both precious and selective when it accuses the Commodore of  trampling on Fijian civil  liberties, or when it refuses visas to relatives of the military leadership while at the same time welcoming with open arms and blind eyes diplomatic representatives of authoritarian regimes far more repressive than Bainimarama and company (remember, for example, the warm receptions given to Pakistani president General Musharraf  and various Chinese delegations in the past few years).

From a practical standpoint, the public posturing between Fiji and New Zealand amounts to a diplomatic failure for the latter. For whatever reasons, quiet diplomacy has been abandoned in favour of pubic sniping between the two governments. Being the larger opponent, New Zealand comes across as a bully, one that kowtows to larger authoritarians but then vents its spleen on a smaller state just because it can do so without adverse economic consequences. Hints at Australian-New Zealand military contingency planning should things in Fiji take a turn for the worse only serve to fuel Fijian military paranoia and local resentment at what is seen as post-colonial neo-imperialism on the part of the Antipodean Anglophones.

As things stand, the diplomatic row amounts to an impasse. Given the stalemate, perhaps it is time for New Zealand diplomats to look more closely at the reasons for the coup, the nature of Fijian political debate in its aftermath, the utility of other interlocutors in the region and at opportunities for dialogue in pursuit of common ground rather than engaging in a negative-sum bilateral tit for tat that ultimately proves fruitless in terms of  facilitating the restoration of Fijian democracy . It may be unpleasant to have to deal with the Commodore on his terms, but then again, that does seem to have impeded New Zealand’s relationship with other authoritarians on a host of issues far less important than democracy promotion.

24 thoughts on “Bullying Fiji

  1. Condemnation from Anglophone outsiders is seen as a colonial vestige that is counter-productive and a violation of Fijian sovereignty. It is seen as hypocritical because New Zealand enjoys trade and diplomatic relations with countries such as The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iran, countries with less than stellar human rights records (and in the case of the two Arab states, oligarchical rule), and yet says nothing negative about them.

    This reminds me a lot of Zimbabwe’s reaction to being told what to do. The same issues with ex-colonial western powers whose “knowing better” smacks of hypocrisy.

    Are there any good examples of times countries like us have told countries like Fiji and Zimbabwe what we think they should do in an effective way?

  2. A useful summary, Pablo.

    John Key’s government seems to have learned nothing from its predecessor’s diplomatic failure in Fiji. It was not necessary to publicly condone Bainimarama’s military coup, but it did make sense to use our recent change of Government to quietly reassess NZ’s meaningful objectives in Fiji, NZ’s public stance towards Bainimarama’s regime, tactics for behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and means by which NZ could assist Fiji through a political transition without succumbing to regional “superpower” arrogance. Sadly, a mere two and a half months after election of the new government in this country, this fortuitous opportunity may have been lost already.

    Bainimarama leads a military junta that is non-threatening by normal standards and espouses certain principles with which we should feel comfortable – addressing public corruption, and containing discriminatory aspirations of ethnic Fijians. That’s a promising platform on which to build constructive dialogue away from the microphones of the media.

  3. One course of action might be to allow the Australians to carry the stick of public denunciations on this one, since they are an emerging middle power with regional power status already, and have a long history of insensitivity towards indigenous politics and culture in and outside of Australia proper. So they can do the barking.

    That would allow New Zealand to take the “speak softly” or carrot approach, in which Kiwi diplomats exhibit more nuance and sensitivity to Fijian political culture in pursuit of a negotiated transition back to electoral rule. The latter stance could be aided by enlisting the help or intercession of other Pacific Island nation representatives, so that the diplomatic bargaining would not be seen as an Anglophone (read neo-colonial) imposition.

    This of course requires diplomatic competency and expertise in Fijian affairs. The examples of the New Guinean peace negotiations as well as Solomon Islands and East Timorese peacekeeping missions demonstrate both the advantages and constraints of having civilian expertise combined with tactful diplomacy in pursuit of negotiated outcomes, remembering of course that in all of these cases it is political factions rather than a unified government that were doing the bargaining. That would seem to make the Fijian case easier to engage, assuming goodwill, socio-political sensitivity, diplomatic tact and patience are the main tools being employed by New Zealand representatives. As it now stands, NZ is shut out from having any constructive leverage in Fijian politics, so a re-consideration of the approach along the lines outlined herein might be in order.

  4. This may be a fairly simplistic perspective but to what extent could relations be improved via improvements to the travel restrictions imposed on the families of the Fijian leaders? Could that be the most effective first move in opening a dialogue and is that sufficient to use as a bargaining chip?

    Secondly is it really that important that NZ & Australia tries to keep Fiji inside the Commonwealth fold? Fiji like other South Pacific island states is already responding to China’s chequebook diplomacy and while we might be able to compete with that if we needed to, is it in our best interests to try to resist that?

  5. reid: your point about the Chinese is well taken but even they will find that there are limits to their cash-based influence given the structure of Fijian political culture. Talk about a clash of civilisations!

    Unilaterally dropping the ban on travel to NZ by relatives of Fijian leaders would be seen by the Commodore and his cronies as a back down at this point (since they are playing a type of diplomatic chicken game with NZ), but some quiet diplomacy to work an exchange along the lines of restoring a full NZ diplomatic presence as a trade for lifting the travel ban might work as a starter for future talks of a more substantive nature. There is an old diplomatic tactic derived from game theory that posits that a nation should begin its approach to an adversary with an opening cooperative gesture, then reply in kind to the response (i.e. respond to a cooperative response with more cooperation, but respond to a non-cooperative response with an uncooperative reply). There is variation on the theme and it has to be applied judiciously, but offering to lift the travel ban in exchange for something might be just that sort of move.

    One thing is certain, the confrontational approach is pushing Fiji closer to the Chinese as a counter to perceived Anglophone “meddling.”.

  6. Spot on. This is very well written. Because NZ is such a tiny country we rarely get to flex our foreign policy arm on anyone smaller than us. In the situation with Fiji it seems good sense has gone out the window, overwhelmed by a desire not to miss the chance to duff someone up.

  7. I was hopeful that with a change of government in NZ, we might see a change in posture re Fiji given that the policy was not working.

    I find it hard to understand just what MFAT officials are thinking on this issue. Though is some of the problem sour grapes that the prior regime supported by NZ was in fact somewhat a product of our so-called diplomacy and thus for reasons of ego we wish a return to the prior corrupt state.

  8. Fiji’s democracy might have be imperfect, but by mounting an illegal coup, Banainarama has denied the Fijians (beyond the power elite in the military) *any* self-determination.

    How has NZ impinged on Fiji’s rights? Surely it’s *our* right as a sovereign nation to decide how we engage with Fiji and it’s people. That includes visa policy, trade, aid and negotiations.

    We’ve actually been very soft with Fiji. We allow Air NZ to fly there, we allow trade and banking to continue mostly unimpeded. The only sanction on the Fijian military (whose ranking members are essentially criminals for supporting the cup) is to ban them from here.

    I don’t think it’s of much relevance that we don’t treat other despotic states in a similar matter. We have to eat, and there are limits on what can be done in the real world. I feel it’s best that situations like these are solved first by the people involved, then by neighbour countries – and NZ is a neighbour of Fiji and not of Saudi Arabia and the like.

  9. Anita: I think international pressure was one key thing that convinced white South Africans that the apartheid regime would never be accepted internationally and convinced them to change.

    Many African countries have also made democratic progress as a result of international encouragement.

    Not to mention Greece, Portugal (where a military coup *restored* democracy), Spain, Turkey (which is being dragged into democracy as a result of the prerequisites of EU membership), etc.

    There are quite a few others.

  10. Rich: Although the transition from apartheid was influenced by foreign pressure, there is no instance if the late 20th/early 21st century of external influences playing the decisive role in authoritarian regime transitions, many of which do not result in democracy but it another form of authoritarianism. The examples you cite are all wrong–external influence was minimal to nil in each case–and the Turkish/EU issue is irrelevant. I could list specifics (such as the fact that the 1974 Revolution of the Carnations in Portugal led to a brief socialist authoritarian regime and did not “restore” democracy because there had never been any such thing), but it would be best if you read some of the voluminous literature on regime transitions that has appeared since 1980 (of which some of my own work is part).

    When external pressure did act as a contributing factor to what essentially is an internally-generated movement for change (say, in Chile in the late 1980s or South Korea and Taiwan in the early 1990s), it was quiet diplomacy and the use of discrete incentives rather than public posturing that had the best effect. That was the point I was trying to make.

  11. Pablo, I realise you know a lot more about this than me :-)

    But I’m still fairly convinced that the requirements the EU imposes on candidate members (democracy, human rights) have had a quite substantial (if maybe not decisive) impact on several European countries in their transition to democracy. Or do you consider this is a special case given the economic power of the EU which isn’t replicated anywhere else?

  12. Rich: You are correct about EU entry requirements, even admitting that the standard is more flexible than it looks on paper. It is the lure of the EU market that is the incentive for aspirants to conform their internal structures to EU requirements–but it is for them to choose to do so or not. That is where reid had a good point, because it is the Chinese who are offering Fiji their direct investment incentives without regard to its internal political situation (something that could eventually backfire on Chinese investors should ethnic tensions in Fiji turn into conflict, as has been seen in the Solomons and Tonga). But the short term use of economic incentives gives the Chinese leverage in Fiji, which in turn gives the Commodore and his pals a buffer from Australian and Kiwi reprisals/sanctions/bans etc. So far what NZ is offering is all (small) stick and no carrot, which to my mind is counter-productive. Looking at the bigger geo-strategic picture suggests to me that NZ has to eschew the short-term Fijian confrontation tactics in pursuit of longer-term diplomatic and security objectives in the region.

  13. There are only two standards – universal and selective. A universal standard is by definition going to be LCD (who cares what you do in your sovereign country, we only have nation to nation relations) – though there can be mutli-lateral standards at the UN and in other organisations. Here the question is whether regions have their own standards – EU or the South Pacific Forum or the Commonwealth.

    Otherwise the only way to apply a selective standard universally is when it only applies to aid receiving countries. The government to government aid tap being the measure that adjusts.

    One example of selective standards was the US expectation that some its military allies should pay a price for not hosting their ships (even though not all other allies would do this either).

  14. Well written and succinct piece. Thank you. It has changed my mind about Fiji signigicantly and I particularly like your “good cop / bad cop” scenario. Trouble is, as you said:

    This of course requires diplomatic competency and expertise in Fijian affairs.

    Neither exists under this National government. In fact, Goober John Key has been sucked into playing the game on Bainimarama’s terms.

    You also point out that most pernicious paradox of trade. What better illustration is there locally than when Jenny Shipley ordered that a bus be placed between protesters and the Chinese Premier?

    But, I’m not sure that we are bullies in relation to Fiji. I do believe that we should seek to effect positive change where we can and that Bainimarama has had quite long enough to at least make a start on the changes he has promised.

  15. BLiP: Do you think `Goober’ is more classy than `Klark’ as an epithet? If so, why?


  16. If all goes well this blog will become self-regulating with regards to the civility of its discourse, which should obviate the need for moderation.

  17. Rich writes,

    Anita: I think international pressure was one key thing that convinced white South Africans that the apartheid regime would never be accepted internationally and convinced them to change.

    The white world telling white South Africans what to do is different from the white first world telling Fijians what to do IMHO.

  18. The boycott movement against South Africa worked because the Soviet Union collapsed – while the Afrikaaner could believe they were part of the west resisting communism they would have held out against the “leftist fellow traveller” movement campaigning against them.

    The hidden issue here is the contest between indigenous people sovereignty and majoritarian democracy. Which makes the Commonwealth (a collection of colonialised nations – many now self governing majoritarian democracies in their Crown head image) a little uneasy of course (something Mugabe plays upon in a different way).

    The latest Fijian coup leader has chosen to portray himself as the defender of the Commonwealth’s values against local indigenous people sovereignty, but not done so in the traditional western means (via the legal and political process), which really confuses the issue.

    At the moment it’s a spat about someone who determined a course unilaterally being called to stay true to his own unilateral course (hold elections) – when claiming to have realised legal complications (and legal nicety was one of the issues cited against him).

    If I was advising the SPF, I would advise them to kick for touch – sure back up their final warning, by “in principle” suspending Fiji from the SPF from a future date (yet to be determined) for not maintaining a democratic course (this builds up pressure, yet allows continued diplomacy).

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  20. Well the unusual timing in the release of Samare’s speech calling for unity and Key’s response of “ridiculous” to Bainimarama’s likening of the Forum’s ultimatum to a “declaration of war;” indicate things are spinning a little bit out of control.

    Frankly I can’t see Clark allowing that to happen and I wonder if this may become, eventually, Key’s first albatross, which all PM’s collect. Little early wouldn’t you say, though? Key being Key, I’d guess he’s probably relying on MFAT advice in this, his first foreign outing. I wonder however if McCully has a hand in his response or if he’s getting his message mostly from the professionals?

    Either way, what’s their calculation? Where’s the upside in isolating Fiji via big-boy tactics in the SP? Perhaps and hopefully, it’s a variation on Pablo’s suggested tactics, where Key plays bad cop and Rudd the good.

    Let’s hope that’s what’s happening, but I don’t think it is, unfortunately.

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  22. reid

    It depends how one “reads” the self appointed saviour of Fiji, does he really intend to solve the problem or simply expoit its existence to govern for 5 or 10 years on the pretext of trying to do so?

    The cynic would say watch the money …

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  24. The pacific area is in control under the ‘democratic’tri parte of Australia-New Zealand-USA.
    News from New Zealand is very neo-con type.Very BIAS!!

    What Australia ‘pretend’ behind East Timor, New Zealand is doing the same thing.They seems to be the good guys, that’s bull****.(moderated for vulgarity) Bear in mind, the government in New Zealand and Australia are ‘white’ governed and the rest of the Pacific are islanders with their ‘islander’ way of doing things.
    Clash of civilisation is still alive in the pacific with’ bullying’ much the name of the game.

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