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New Zealand’s Approach to Fiji

Article adapted from a speech given by Gerald McGhie to a Pacific Exporters' Networks event in Wellington on 22 October 2013

My experience of business organisations is that members are practical people who want practical solutions to the issues that face them.

I readily sympathise. We all want to shape the world in the way we would like it to be, to do our job and get on with life.

The problem is that life and the world is becoming an increasingly complex place. Economic globalisation seems here to stay and political issues crop up with increasing regularity.

For many years we and Australia saw the Pacific as our own.

There were a number of small island states that we administered and had grown to assume that the familiar relationship that we had developed during the colonial times would remain after independence.

In fact these attitudes did carry through and to boot, the Pacific remained as a useful market.

But that situation is now changing very significantly. The major powers are again taking an interest in the area and providing competition for the goods and services New Zealand firms traditionally supplied.

More to the point Pacific peoples themselves are changing. Electronic communication and mass migration means that even the most isolated Pacific islands have a pretty good idea of what's going on in the outside world.

If the highly invasive Internet is not bringing the message from outside the extended families now living in New Zealand, Australia and the United States are filling the space with a pretty realistic picture of what life in our western societies is like.

As with the population at large Pacific leaders too are becoming more aware of their space and becoming more assertive as their experience and options widen.

And there is a big new player in the region which Pacific leaders like to deal with – that is China.

All this I am sure you know. But there is value in restating the facts as we try to look at the situation as it is.

This leads me specifically to Fiji. Since December 2006 New Zealand has instituted additional sanctions against the government of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. These were added to the sanctions already in place from previous coups in Fiji.

Fiji itself has found these sanctions to be irritating. People directly associated with the military coup and indeed many of their relations were barred entry to New Zealand. This extended even to the goalkeeper of the Fiji soccer team.

But what deeply annoyed the Fiji leadership was the fact that New Zealand and Australia worked assiduously behind-the-scenes to have Fiji removed from United Nations peacekeeping forces and from the British Army.

The income from Fiji servicemen in overseas armed forces now represents a very substantial addition to the Fijian GDP and they were not at all happy at this attack on their capacity to earn money.

Of course, and I have been at pains to point this out in my own writing, military takeovers of power are in no way to be condoned.

Obviously if there is a forceful takeover of power outside the electoral system there are going to be consequences.

But perhaps we might look for some consistency. Pakistan and Thailand from memory have experienced coups since 2006 but I can recall no New Zealand instituted heavy criticisms or sanctions.

Worse, the Egyptian military recently removed the duly elected though limited focus Morsi government from power in Cairo.

Given his previous responses to the Fiji coup I wondered, in a public statement, whether Mr Goff might be issuing a statement concerning the Egyptian coup. Neither the foreign minister nor Mr Goff seemed to be much interested.

But here’s the problem.

If you are wondering why there has been little reaction from New Zealand to developments in Egypt the answer is quite simple. On the one hand Egypt is a highly significant strategic player in Middle East relations. The major Western powers are looking on very nervously at what is happening in Cairo and across the wider Middle East. They do not want to become embroiled or they do not want to take sides – at least publicly.

Fiji does not have the same strategic importance that the Middle East and particularly Egypt has. It is a simple fact in international relations that the rules of the game change slightly as the strategic power focus shifts.

Nevertheless over the last two or three years the United States has shown much more interest in Fiji and the Pacific generally as Washington takes a fresh look at China's involvement in a range of forum countries.

They have certainly increased US diplomatic representation in Suva.

In a particularly significant move Hillary Clinton participated in the 2012 Forum in Rarotonga and visited PNG and other Pacific countries.

These moves and the trenchant criticisms of Australia and New Zealand by the ranking representative of the House Foreign Relations Committee were seen by some commentators as carrying an implication that Washington wanted to take a fresh look at developments in the Pacific from its own viewing platform. After all the US has an extensive Pacific coastline – as indeed does China and Russia.

Perhaps Hillary Clinton could see that in spite five or six years of little more than sanctions and attempts to isolate Fiji, Prime Minister Bainimarama and his team have made substantial progress internationally.

Indeed Fiji is now welcomed in a range of international capitals and in important international organisations. Suva chairs the United Nations group of 77 and the International Sugar Organisation.

It has revitalised the Melanesian Spearhead Group (a grouping which contains the mineral rich countries of the South Pacific) and recently hosted the inaugural meeting of the Pacific Island Development Forum.

In a recent article in the Dominion Post, Professor Crosbie Walsh commented that these moves must weaken the Forum and potentially weaken our influence in the Pacific.

You as exporters have been caught up in the mix of events that followed the 2006 Fiji coup. I am not sure exactly how the export market has been affected but Charles tells me that there is a feeling, anecdotally, that many millions of dollars have been lost in what was previously a useful market for New Zealand exporters.

In discussion with your Network Convenor before today's meeting I thought the Network was a good initiative. Clear thinking on Fiji, so absent for too long is clearly needed. 

Importantly attempts to get closer to traditional markets does not mean approval of the military coup.

It does mean however the pursuit of legitimate interests.

But, there are some big questions to be answered. I can only guess what these are: you as individual exporters will have your own particular perspective.

But, let’s not get too attached to words.

As a priority PEN will want to create the conditions for members to promote their products and services in the Pacific region.

The re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations is on the face of it a very sensible beginning.

The Australians are already making overtures on the subject and as those who recall my recent article in the Dominion Post  will know I gave pretty solid backing to be then shadow minister now Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop’s comments.

I do not want to pre-empt anything that PEN is seeking but let us bear carefully in mind the context.

First – the political dimension. You will be aware that the current Fiji government does not feel that it owes New Zealand a great deal.

The hard line approach we have taken and particularly the level of criticism (some of it personal) that has been levelled at members of the Bainimarama government has been regarded as particularly offensive.

Perhaps we do find Prime Minister Bainimarama’s actions unacceptable. There certainly have been actions which we would not accept in our own society.

But it has been my experience in the Pacific that among the various cultures, there is a broad pattern of exchange that is regarded as the acceptable norm.

Reactions to criticisms that they see as beneath the dignity of their chiefly status can be quick and severe.

Broadly they will simply hunker down and take no further interest in you as a person or if necessary, your country.

So there will have to be some very careful intergovernmental and diplomatic fence-mending before full relations can again be established.

My own feeling is that in spite of what might happen at the formal level – that is an exchange of ambassadors – it will take a very long time for the current wounds to heal in Fiji.

But more than this, there are new forces at work within Fiji. In a recent discussion a very senior Fiji official informed me that Fiji is proud of the gains they have made since the coup.

This group considers that there is no need to rush into any rapprochement with New Zealand.

As an example you will be aware that after the recent easing of sanctions Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama called New Zealand's action "insincere, unneeded and too late". That gives some idea of just how far behind the eight ball we are.

It is indeed a matter of question of whether Fiji wants to return to the Pacific Forum as it is now constructed. I have mentioned the alternative organisation they have formed. I suspect their interest lies in developing the Pacific Islands Development Forum.

That broadly is about as far as we can take speculation at the moment. There is always a great deal of conjecture when the stakes are reasonably high and no one has any real idea about which way developments will go.

Be that as it may the New Zealand government should be informed of the precise nature of the problems you now face on the Fiji market. That is, perhaps a list should be compiled of what has happened to the export market for your product since the coup. This includes jobs, business viability, loss of contacts etc.

This does not need to be a lengthy or highly detailed document but it should be factually informative and well targeted.

New Zealand's politically motivated policies have left us with little leverage in Fiji. For some time now we have been without full embassy representation and the expulsions of diplomats have done nothing to create a climate for productive negotiations.

Again, I am speculating but one of the few areas of contact that we do have relates to the development assistance programme. But any pressure exerted on that area would probably be counterproductive. It hasn't worked in the past and I doubt whether it would in the present circumstances especially with China making such large financial and other inputs to assist the Fiji government. .

There are a couple of other issues I want to touch on before concluding.

That is, as a Pacific nation with a not inconsiderable Pacific Island population living within New Zealand we need to be constantly aware of our Pacific identity. 6.1% of the population now counts itself as Pacific Island in derivation and we can see that politics in the Auckland region are certainly being influenced by Pacific islanders.

From the Network’s point of view I wonder whether your membership is tapping into the expertise and contacts that Fiji – Indian entrepreneurs have brought to New Zealand.

In the Asian context I understand that many business partnerships now work through contacts immigrants to New Zealand have with their countries of origin. As you know partnerships of any type take time to develop. There will be no quick fix in this area of export development.

Let us remind ourselves. There is nothing new about immigrant contacts. New Zealand has been working at these for around 150 years. Only the area of development has shifted.

As I mentioned attitudes in the Pacific itself are changing. China is now a significant influence in the area.

Beijing clearly has its own agenda / perhaps fishing rights and particularly in Papua New Guinea and The Solomons they will want access rights to the mineral wealth of both countries. So in due course Beijing will come calling.

But as you know China is now a significant market for New Zealand. There will be reluctance on the part of the government to make any very pointed demands on Beijing in relation to the Pacific. Besides Beijing tends to make up its own mind on its interests.

There are a number of other players active in the region in Fiji I understand that Indonesia and Malaysia are now quite heavily involved in the economy. They too have their own agendas.

I have little doubt that the Asian style of doing business will bring changes to the way in which we have traditionally gone about business dealings in the Pacific in the past.

As you know, Asian countries do not feel the same urgency to promote the Human Rights agenda as many Western countries do. Asians are not quite so ready to preach during their visits to Pacific countries.

Much importance in the Pacific is given to style and attitude. It is something that New Zealand – New Zealanders – need to keep working on.

It was good to have John Hayes as speaker at the last meeting. Staying in touch with the Government is important. But I don't think that at this stage the audience needs an optimistic narrative about the great opportunities beckoning in the Pacific.

From an exporters point of view what I see as important is that we pool the resources we have and coordinate our responses and try to ensure that PEN members at least are clear about the extent of the problem.

Depending on the answer we will then be able to scope possible solutions.

These are just some quick thoughts. I hope they are useful at this stage of the Network’s life.


Gerald McGhie is a former career diplomat who served as ambassador to Moscow and Seoul, High Commissioner to Port Moresby and Commissioner in Hong Kong. Now retired, he is a past director of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and was chairman of the New Zealand chapter of Transparency International.

New Zealand's Approach to Fiji

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