Putting the ‘Pacific’ in Pacific Islands Forum: Bainimarama’s return

Regional lessons for Australia as Fiji’s PM changes tack

Xavier Wilks

International relations | Pacific, Australia

1 August 2019

Bainimarama’s attendance at the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum meeting is a ‘step-up’ of Fijian sovereignty, Xavier Wilks writes.

Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama’s decision to attend the forum looks like an early victory for Australia’s Pacific Step-up, but instead holds an important lesson for regional relations.

After a decade long hiatus, the Fijian prime minister will attend the annual meeting of Pacific leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). The PIF is the region’s leading political multilateral organisation. Fiji was one of the Forum’s founding members, but was suspended in 2009 due to political and civil human rights abuses following a 2006 coup led by Bainimarama.

Fiji returned to the Forum in 2015. However, since then the foreign minister, rather than prime minister, has attended. A clear mark of disdain for a leaders’ summit.

Bainimarama at the time stated, ‘As head of government, I will not participate in any forum leader’s meeting until the issue of the undue influence of Australia and New Zealand and our divergence of views is addressed.’

He further expressed a perspective on regional organisation by establishing the Pacific Islands Development Forum—a Fiji-led alternative, excluding Australia and New Zealand.

Since then, Australia has commenced its Pacific Step-up. Announced in 2017, the policy aims to expand Australian engagement with the Pacific region.

More on this: The Pacific Step-up: making a difference or more of the same??

Public elements of the policy are coy on Australia’s strategic interests in the Pacific. But the Step-up is closely related to concerns about Australia’s diminishing regional influence, in comparison to external powers, like China, and regional revisionists, such as Fiji.

Thus, Bainimarama’s announcement of his planned attendance at the next PIF meeting in Tuvalu is significant.

Why the change, and why now? What does it mean for Fiji, Australia and the Pacific region?

It’s tempting to suggest that Australia’s Pacific Step-up and PM Morrison’s sudden regional tour wooed Bainimarama into refreshing Australian and regional relations.

Given that Bainimarama’s statement came a month after Morrison’s visit to Fiji, and followed the announcement of a swag of bilateral agreements, Australian actions seem a likely explanation for Bainimarama’s shift and an early success for the Step-up.

However, to take this as the only explanation would deny recognition of Bainimarama’s own success and paint his concerns over Australian and New Zealand influence in the PIF as shallow or adaptable. This is not the case.

Reports on the Forty-NinthPacific Islands Forum Communiqué have focused on its security elements. This has overshadowed an equally important, if less obviously exciting, declaration: the Resolution on Sustainable Funding of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

The PIF has traditionally been financed largely by Australia and New Zealand, leading to criticism of undue influence. The resolution counters this, setting a transitional pathway for Australian and New Zealand contributions to fall to 49 per cent of the organisation’s budget by 2021.

They will still contribute significantly more than any individual Pacific nation. But the perceived financial balance will shift, symbolically giving Pacific nations a ‘controlling stake’ in the Forum.

This resolution and what it represents are a major factor in Bainimarama’s return. It reduces Australia and New Zealand’s perceived influence and signals broad recognition of Pacific sovereignty and ownership of the PIF.

Australia’s Step-up may have supported it, but Bainimarama’s return to the Forum has undoubtedly hinged on the achievement of Fiji’s interests.

The outcomes of Bainimarama’s attendance remain to be seen. Fiji will likely continue pursuing reform of Pacific regional organisations and these reforms may clash with renewed Australia-Fijian relations.

Australia walks a fine line between achieving immediate strategic interests and maintaining valuable relations in the long term. Communication and engagement with the Pacific must be Australia’s top priority going forward, to manage these conflicting tensions.

While it is tempting to consider this an early success story for Australia’s Step-up, it is also a timely reminder of how important Pacific perspectives and sovereignty are.

For all the significance of Australian efforts, this restoration of the regional order has come from Pacific interests being met through Pacific action. The future of regional cooperation will be influenced in large part by how Australia responds to renewed Pacific sovereignty.

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