Opinion: Query external ties
Dr Wadan Narsey
Saturday, May 17, 2014
FOR some countries and voters, their country’s official and formal relationships with other countries, whether on a bilateral basis or on multi-lateral basis, can affect their lives, and could influence how they vote.
When formal relationships break down, voters and their families can suffer in direct and indirect ways.
When new formal relationships are built bringing benefits through aid, loans, investment or trade, then some groups of voters may collectively also feel more secure.
Over the past seven years, Fiji has faced both these sets of changes to its external relationships, with negative and positive impacts on groups of Fiji citizens and voters.
Voters can legitimately ask all political parties and candidates what their strategies will be for all of Fiji’s external relationship.
I examine just a few, and very superficially at that.
Australia and NZ
Australia and NZ have had close relations with Fiji for more than a century.
Their investments have dominated the Fiji economy right up until political independence and even today, they dominate the financial sector.
Australia and NZ also supply a large proportion of our tourists for an industry which has replaced the sugar industry as the pillar of our economy. We are a large market for their goods.
Australia and NZ have also taken large numbers of our skilled emigrants, whose human capital value is several times the aid they give us and whose loss we can ill-afford, but they also have a impact through large remittances sent home.
When the 2006 coup took place, Australia and NZ, to show their support of constitutionality and abhorrence of illegal coups, imposed “smart” sanctions which ended up being totally ineffective (easy in hindsight).
Nevertheless, they maintained their “people-to-people” aid relations.
But Fiji was unwisely excluded from the PACER negotiations, and far more importantly also from the potentially valuable Guest Worker schemes which could have assisted employment and boosted remittance incomes.
In turn, Fiji unwisely expelled high commissioners of Australia and NZ, for no real gain whatsoever, but causing much trauma to Fiji families whose potential benefits were threatened.
When Australia and NZ recently re-established relations in anticipation of the September elections, some critics complained that this was “selling out of principles” and alleged that Australia and NZ were only doing this in response to their fear of China’s increasing importance in Fiji.
But the facts are that Australia and NZ are doing everything in their powers to facilitate the return of Fiji to an elected parliament and government, whether of Bainimarama, some other party or some coalition.
This is what all voters will welcome.
Should the Fiji Military Forces not respect the outcome of the elections (and there is no evidence to suppose that) then the policy options will be again open to Australia and NZ. That is their headache, not of our political parties.
The reality also is that with large and increasing numbers of Fiji citizens in Australia and NZ, our historical trading, political and social relations, our geographical proximity, and our common objectives in this vast South Pacific ocean, Fiji MUST maintain solid formal relations with Australia and NZ, whatever our internal political situation.
However reluctant it may have been in the past, Australia and NZ will eventually be forced to take on a more enlightened and non-discriminatory leadership role in its Pacific backwater, instead of the sporadic, ad hoc and knee-jerk interest it has shown so far.
Much depends on the next elected government and dominant party.
European Union and UK
Following the 2006 coup, the EU took a similar stance to that of Australia and NZ.
When the Bainimarama Government (which FLPs Chaudhry was then part of as Finance Minister) refused to hold the promised elections in 2009, EU withheld some $300 million of aid which could have assisted significantly in the rehabilitation of the sugar industry and the much-needed diversification.
Of all the sanctions by our developed country partners, this probably hurt the most and partly explains why our sugar industry is still in a mess.
Of course, the larger part of the explanation is that the EU has moved away from its sugar preferences (as economists had warned for decades) and the Fiji canefarmers and millers are terribly inefficient in farming, cane harvesting, cane transport and milling.
But the EU is still in a position to assist in Fiji’s development, especially if good Economic Partnership Agreements are signed (and that is not too obvious at the moment).
Despite Britain’s reduced exposure in Fiji and the Pacific, Fiji still has its very special relationship based on Fijian soldiers working for the British Army, although Britain has not done its own image any good over the years as a stalwart of parliamentary democracy, in too readily recognising military coups and illegal leaders.
But, and this is despite the reduced professional image of Fiji soldiers given their ready support of military coups, Fijian soldiers are still valued by Britain for their services, past, present and in the immediate future (even though it is also cutting back their military strengths.)
One international grouping which suspended Fiji following the 2006 coup has been the Commonwealth.
While some argue that the Commonwealth is an anachronism that has little to offer Fiji, one sanction that has really hurt was exclusion from the Commonwealth Games, making sport-people scapegoats for the failures of its military political leaders
These games have been very important in taking Fiji competitors up several notches above the South Pacific Games, but towards “reachable” standards, in contrast to the Olympic Games which are way beyond the imagination of our athletes.
Fiji has been readmitted to the Commonwealth Games (but too late for rugby sevens). Full admission after the elections may enable Fiji to access the many relevant technical assistance programs they have on offer.
US relationship with Fiji has been extremely complex and probably quite difficult for them also.
On the one hand, their government has a very public stance in support of constitutionality everywhere in the world, with US Congress usually holding their government to greater account (however imperfectly).
On the other hand, US has been reluctant to use possibly the most powerful sanction on the Fiji Military Forces hierarchy, the withdrawal of support for Fiji peacekeepers throughout the world, working for UN and private security companies.
While some years ago, US withdrew some of its global activities from the Pacific (such as the Peace Corps), it has now returned, partly because of the perceived threat from Chinese influence, and partly because of reduced confidence in the ability of Australia and NZ to manage their back yard in keeping with US interests and strategies.
US also has much to offer if Fiji can get its act together, much of it unexplored because of our southern perspectives.
New donors: China, Malaysia, India, Arab countries etc
Perhaps the largest amount of hysteria in blogs has been generated by Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian aid and loans to Fiji and their many investment projects (some obviously in trouble).
Some of the public concerns have been quite legitimate, for instance building approvals being illegally given overriding Fiji’s environmental laws, or alleged lower standards in building of housing, roads and hydroelectric schemes, all worsened because of the absence of public accountability of the current government.
However, recent announcements by Chinese companies indicate that Fiji concerns about appropriate standards are being addressed by the use of Australasian companies as standards auditors for their large projects in Fiji.
But note that much of Chinese aid has been in infrastructure development whose benefits are localised over time, while other donors have usually been helping in human development (education and health) which Fiji can and does lose through emigration.
Chinese aid is complementary to other aid, and is apparently given without any obvious conditions (although all foreign aid has their foreign policy objectives).
On a priori grounds, Chinese, Indian and Malaysian aid may also offer more suitable technology than developed country donors and consultants.
Overall, the “aid market” has been made “more competitive” for Fiji by the entry of China, Malaysia, India, and several Arab countries.
Of course some investors may attempt to circumvent local protective legislation. But that would not be possible without the collusion of Fiji’s civil servants and political leaders, who are our responsibility, not the donors.
Fiji has many regional organisations available for formal membership.
Fiji was expelled from Forum Secretariat after its decision not to hold the 2009 elections, with some alleging Australia and NZ were the instigators.
Fiji is also part of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, PNG) which has increased enormously in importance for Fiji, because of the new-found minerals and LNG wealth in PNG.
Fiji has also begun a competitor to the Forum Secretariat, with its base also in Suva, but excluding Australia and NZ from membership, while supported by China.
There is also a nebulous “Pacific Plan” bilibili being slowly pushed poled along by Australia and NZ, giving an appearance of regional integration, while soft-pedaling on the PACER Plus, potentially of greater importance to Fiji.
These competing regional organisations are urgently in need for rationalisation.
Much will depend on what Fiji’s political parties and candidates see as potential future benefits from these regional organisations.
Voters can ask political parties and candidates what their policies would be with respect to formal relations with donor countries, and regional and international organisations:
* in diplomatic representation;
* labour mobility;
* sports (rugby and netball) and
* easier visa access to Fiji citizens;
* cultural; and
* sporting events (such as Super 15).
Can improved relations with these donor countries and regional and international organizations give rise to substantial economic, social and political benefits to Fiji’s voters?
Are all parties and candidates on the same page or even reading the same book on international relations?
* These are the views of Professor Wadan Narsey and not of The Fiji Times. Professor Narsey was a parliamentarian from 1996 to 1999 after which he has had no political affiliations. He has stated to The Fiji Times he is not aligned to any political party and he will not be standing for elections.