from the Canberra Times journalist looking at the relationship between Oz and Fiji.
Poor links with Fiji part of wider Pacific problem
7/10/2008 9:43:00 AM
The Pacific has always been our backyard, and a friendly place that we've used for restful holidays to ''get away from it all''. As a result we took the tiny island states for granted, even when they were beginning to fall apart from internal conflicts and violence. We're still doing it; sleeping in blissful ignorance, even though the old regional dynamic is dangerously threatened and about to change forever to our immense disadvantage.
The clearest example of how these secure regional waters have suddenly changed into treacherous ones can be seen in Australia's relationship with Fiji. A series of coups, and the current military-dominated Government (that we don't approve of) threw up a series of diplomatic challenges. How would it be possible to criticise the army for seizing power and still maintain a close relationship with the people of all ethnic groups on the islands?
Achieving this balance has proved to be completely beyond Australia's capacity. Instead of redoubling efforts to find a new way of engaging with different constituencies, Australia is now perceived as a wishy-washy regional power, prevaricating between action and rhetoric, completely unable to decide how it should act. By trying to walk in the centre, and sticking to a delicately neutral line, it has managed to alienate everyone.
The biggest blunder was probably the heavy-handed military exercise that took place just off the coast of Fiji in 2006. This was gunboat diplomacy of the worst sort; farce that rapidly descended into tragedy when a helicopter was lost off the deck of HMAS Kanimbla. Two men died and another eight were injured. This terrible event vividly demonstrated if there was any doubt that Australia had absolutely no capacity to take any military action against the coup leader. But when Fiji's Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama visited China recently he didn't just intend to spend his time watching the Olympic Games. When he left Beijing he took a sensational present with him: a multi-billion-dollar soft loan that at one stroke has completely emancipated the islands from any reliance on Australian aid. Fiji has realised as have other Pacific islands that the emerging Chinese superpower is now ready to back its desires to engage with the region with serious money.
In a matter of weeks Australia has lost its once pre-eminent status in the region. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was unable to provide even an off-the-record briefing about either the detail of the loan to Fiji, or how it might be spent. It would be difficult to find a clearer indication of just how we were blindsided by the Chinese initiative, which has left our own efforts in the region completely outflanked.
It is neither possible nor desirable for Australia to buy influence in the region as it cannot hope to match the large amounts of money that a superpower can throw at the island states. Nevertheless, where Australia has been able to shine in the past is by demonstrable goodwill, contact and genuine assistance over a long period of time.
The flagship of our defence program has been provided by the Pacific Patrol Boat program, which was announced with much fanfare by then prime minister Bob Hawke, at a Pacific Forum meeting in 1983. Originally the program was to equip eight countries with 10 patrol boats; it was such a success that 12 countries now operate 22 of the boats.
The vessels are small (just 31.5m long and operated by a crew of 19 sailors), but they're crucial for the islands. The boats represent the only way the forum countries can police their waters; by preventing illegal fishing and providing a presence for the fragile governments of the Pacific. The micro-states don't have a lot of money and as a result there have been difficulties with the program.
For example, instead of being at sea for up to 50 days a year, some of the boats have averaged less than 36 days. That's been caused by crewing difficulties and the cost of the fuel needed to operate the boats. Unsurprisingly, some of the micro-states find it difficult to obtain the hard currency required to achieve everything they'd like, but at least the program demonstrates that Australia does care for its neighbours. Instead of costing us about $12million a year, costs have blown out to nearly $50million a year.
This coupled with the fact that the program will come to its natural conclusion in less than a decade has now led to an amazing submission to a Senate inquiry. Despite the program's success, some bureaucrat has decided our military ''does not intend to recommend a Defence-led follow-on [Pacific Patrol Boat] program in the options taken forward to Government''.
This may save a few dollars, but the idiocy of this approach should be self-evident. The program comprises influence and access beyond its financial value. If Australia doesn't choose to maintain its links with the islands, they will quickly become the beneficiaries of Chinese aid and a crucial interaction with the region will be lost forever.
In a move that could have relevance for the way we treat the Pacific, just last week the United States military established its own new regional grouping. Africa Command will now join the three other US military headquarters that span the globe (in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific). The US military understands that the skills necessary to guarantee victory demand an understanding of the unique geographic and cultural factors in different areas. This is an insight that has seemingly eluded Australia's military which concentrates on teaching officers how to fight; they are meant to pick up the other equally crucial skills along the way. This might have been acceptable in the past, when the Pacific was just a backwater, but now that it has become a significant area of conflict, Australia needs commanders who have intimate familiarity with the region and personal contacts with the islands. Assuming the region will just look after itself is no longer good enough.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.