The Dynamics of Fiji-New Zealand Relations: What Now, and What Next?

By Tiger Shen


2018 will prove to be a momentously telling year for Fiji.

Historically, it marks twelve years since the military coup that brought Frank Bainimarama to power, nine years since the nation’s suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum, and a mere four years since the instatement of democratic elections in Fiji. Yet even more crucially, 2018 sees the second wave of democratic national elections since Frank Bainimarama’s coup, and is an event that will be closely overseen by its South Pacific neighbour, New Zealand, among others. Whether these elections will fully bring Fiji out of the legacy of 2006’s military takeover or simply cement the hold of Bainimarama’s FijiFirst party over national politics, only time will tell.

Yet domestic Fijian politics in isolation are not the primary concern of this article.

After all, Fiji today is hardly the cautious, reactionary and isolationist Fiji in the wake of Bainimarama’s coup. The island nation’s role within regional and international relations, having gradually emerged from the shadow of 2006, are ever more evident in today’s increasingly interconnected world, and it is within this framework that we must now consider the changing nature of diplomatic relations between Fiji and New Zealand. It is such a relationship between arguably the two most economically and politically notable nations of the region (as much as Australia may tend to involve itself with South Pacific affairs, we will exclude it from the immediate geographical debate) that comes to define the nature of very developments in the South Pacific, and it is ultimately these rather turbulent intricacies that we must look into; its past and its present, as well as what the future holds for cross-national dialogue.

Hence, this article seeks to map the trajectory of the Fiji-New Zealand relationship, as well as offering a tentative view of the future, as well as suggesting necessary steps in nuancing irreconcilable stances and ameliorating potential conflict. After all, with the potentially destabilising encroachment of foreign powers into the South Pacific, internal regional stability and cooperation will soon become more important than ever.

Historical Context: Diplomatic Relations since the 2006 Coup

The events of 2006 brought about a distinct deterioration in New Zealand-Fiji relations; amongst a plethora of international criticism, Prime Minister Helen Clark was a key figure in spearheading New Zealand’s leading role in condemning the undemocratic seizure of power by Bainimarama and his military forces. Immediate responses took the form of sweeping sanctions imposed in December 2006, which interestingly appeared to resemble that of their Australian counterpart; a unified stance was hence taken by both the Clark and Howard governments, implying interests and agendas far more aligned than what Wellington or Canberra would care to admit. Here, three key interactions were impacted. Diplomatic dialogue between Fiji and New Zealand were limited and travel bans were placed upon all individuals connected with the coup alongside members of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF), as well as family members of such individuals, hence effectively cutting any political ties between the two nations. Economic links, such as the movement of seasonal workers from Fiji to New Zealand, were severed as so-called financial ‘punishment’ imposed upon the new government in Fiji. Sporting connections were also cut off, hence reducing cultural contact between two nations that previously enjoyed a vibrant sporting relationship.

In summing up the sentiments of the New Zealand government in imposing such an approach, Prime Minister Clark issued the following statement to the new leaders controlling the Fijian government:

“The New Zealand Government cannot overstate the severity with which it views the actions of Commodore Bainimarama and the Fiji military. They must cease their disgraceful acts and restore the legitimately elected government, or suffer the consequences of their grossly illegal acts.”

Considering the interventionist stance that the New Zealand government had been taking in the South Pacific, this drastic and rather reactionary response was hardly surprising. While it would, of course, be awfully cynical to deny any interest in maintaining the democratic and political stability/legitimacy of the Fijian government, it would also be hopelessly naïve to ignore any more far more vested national interests held by the New Zealand government. In other words, it can be seen that New Zealand’s response ultimately had much deeper geopolitical concerns and interests, couched within highly moralising language.

Flint Prujean, in a fascinating thesis submitted to the University of Canterbury on the 2006 Coup, notes the wider context in which New Zealand (alongside the Howard government in Australia) responded to the events in Fiji. Primarily, the political turmoil of the coup, other than being an affront to democratic ideals held by New Zealand, also impacted far more immediate concerns the New Zealand government held in Melanesia; considering the active role New Zealand had previously played in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, a wary (if not utterly hostile) approach towards political changes in Fiji was merely a response to perceived threats to regional stability. Arguably, the restoration of democratic rule in Fiji was simply a means to an end for New Zealand.

This observation, however, is largely self-evident; any self-respecting government would recognise the need to consolidate regional interests, and New Zealand, being the dominant force in the South Pacific, was no different in the wake of 2006. What is truly fascinating, rather, is the nature and targets of New Zealand-imposed sanctions; Prujean identifies the extent to which Clark’s government sought to negatively impact through the sanctions a notable number of individuals who had not been involved in the coup, which implied that theoretically, increased hardship upon innocent people under such sanctions would foment common uprisings against Bainimarama’s regime. There is little evidence to suggest that this strategy worked in New Zealand’s favour, but it certainly demonstrates the degree to which New Zealand’s reaction must be viewed beyond mere democratic and sanctimonious language; Clark’s government, as well as Key’s government, which would follow much of her policy on Fiji, were not so idealistic, but rather highly realistic and pragmatic.

As an interesting observation, it appears that as much as Bainimarama’s coup may have offended New Zealand’s sense of democratic righteousness and regional stability, it was the New Zealand government that actively pursued to break down (if not damage) Fiji-New Zealand relations. It is likely that Fiji, even after the coup, was willing to continue dialogue with New Zealand, had it not been for Wellington’s imposition of sanctions.

Hence, Fijian attitudes towards New Zealand were also marred in the wake of the 2006 sanctions. Bainimarama, in viewing sanctions against Fiji, presented New Zealand as a ‘bully’ with so-called ‘neo-imperialistic’ tendencies and interests in the South Pacific. Taking into account previous considerations, Bainimarama’s comments are not utterly unjustified; certainly, the illegitimacy of the new Fijian government should be seen as a Western perspective, and even then, Bainimarama had the right to self-determination and the coordination of the new political structure in Fiji. In his view, New Zealand’s policy simply interfered with the running of the interim government.

In distancing itself from New Zealand’s interventionism and cutting off diplomatic ties to the government in Wellington, Fiji has looked abroad for financial and military aid. China and Russia, for example, have been exerting a greater influence in the region, and Fiji’s open collaboration with these nations, such as engaging in a weapons deal with Russia and moving towards China economically simply constitutes yet another threat to New Zealand’s dominance in the region.

Reconciliation and Reopening of Dialogue

Today, the situation between Fiji and New Zealand has certainly been taking a cautious turn for the better. The re-integration of Fiji into the South Pacific Forum in 2014, as well as the opening up of better diplomatic communication between the Fijian and New Zealand governments demonstrate an improved and new phase of relations between the two nations. In 2010, New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, during a trip to Nadi, paved the way for the reestablishment of Counsellor positions in Wellington and Suva respectively, while 2014 saw the accreditation of a New Zealand High Commissioner to Fiji, signalling an end to the reciprocal diplomatic expulsions that had dominated Fiji-New Zealand relations from 2009 onward. Currently, New Zealand is in the process of supporting the upcoming 2018 National Elections in Fiji in providing technical assistance to election preparations and parliamentary proceedings.

New Zealand also continues to provide aid to Fiji, having undergone the process to lift much of the sanctions imposed under Clark’s government. During 2016/2017, New Zealand provided a total of $NZ21.6million, with $NZ15.1million as part of bilateral programme funding; key sectors of interest are agriculture, education and overall human development. In the wake of Tropical Cyclone Winston in 2016, New Zealand has continued to provide infrastructure support in order to help with rebuilding efforts.

Certainly, the cynic in me cannot help but treat these economic incentives as part of an agenda by the Key and Ardern governments to re-orientate an increasingly amenable Fiji towards more agreeable national interests; after all, New Zealand’s approach seems to hold certain similarities to China’s so-called ‘chequebook diplomacy’. Nonetheless, it is not my intention to engage in baseless speculation; one can certainly accept that greater interactions between the New Zealand and Fijian governments, be it of political or economic nature, certainly demonstrate a gradual but equally fragile shift towards the right direction. It ought to now, in my opinion, be the responsibility of both nations to uphold this ameliorated relationship and to build towards a far more cooperative and stable South Pacific political climate.

Conclusions: What does the future hold?

Certainly, this article has demonstrated the complexities of Fiji-New Zealand relations, as well as the dangers of diametrically opposed stances and the severing of cross-national communication in the face of perceived security threats. Naturally, governments are indebted to uphold national interests and must seek ways to consolidate such interests, yet these agendas must be achieved through much more nuanced means in order to both guarantee national and international security; it is, after all, not the desire of conventional governments to create more enemies than allies. New Zealand and Fiji, as per this doctrine of international relations, are ultimately no different.

Recent developments in the Fiji-New Zealand relationship have been, at the very least, encouraging, and demonstrate the correct direction for the two nations to take in both securing domestic concerns as well as the wider regional stability of the South Pacific. As much as it is the moral responsibility of a nation to point out and criticise the shortcomings of other nations in order to inspire a change, such criticism should not manifest itself in the forms of discontinued diplomatic dialogue and harsh sanctions, especially those that impacted the people more so than the rogue government, for it has been proven with Fiji that such sanctions do not work. New Zealand’s interventionist stance in the wake of 2006, after all, can certainly be seen in the interfering light that Frank Bainimarama painted it to be, and such a forceful approach should be avoided. Cooperation is always preferable to antagonism.

Of course, this is a rather idealistic view to take in regards to Fiji-New Zealand relations; the world is not made up of flowers and rainbows, and the seasoned diplomat knows to discard the rose-tinted glasses in order to take the unideal but often necessary heavy-handed approach. Yet even between these two extremes of international relations, the value of dialogue should never be forgotten, and this is what the dynamics of interactions between Fiji and New Zealand teach us; an increased communication has been central to reaffirming regional stability and tempering the potential threat of foreign powers and competition.

As I had intimated at the start of this article, 2018 will prove to be a telling year. It is an election year for Fiji and could very well prove to be a vital turning point, a fresh chapter in the relationship between New Zealand and Fiji; whether a new leader will emerge or the political figures of the coup will remain in power, we shall have to wait and see. Nonetheless, the same principles must stand; communication must remain open and free between the two governments in order to foment understanding and appreciation of respective interests. If the successor represents a new political order in Fiji, then New Zealand must make necessary steps to ensure the progress in diplomatic dialogue since 2006 is not lost. Conversely, should Bainimarama and the old order be triumphant, New Zealand must respect the choice of the people in what will hopefully be a legitimate election akin to that of 2014, even if it leaves the sour taste of 2006’s legacy. In both cases, Fiji must also recognise the genuine concern that New Zealand has in the South Pacific and must accept the degree to which it must cooperate with these concerns in order to cement a harmonious working relationship in the region, one that will extend beyond New Zealand and Fiji, forming a wider network criss-crossing the South Pacific.

Once again, only time will tell. If recent trends are anything to go by, it is clear that New Zealand and Fiji have both recognised the error of their old ways and are making conscious efforts to rectify past mistakes. Of course, it would be fatally dangerous to be complacent, for it is far too easy, within the tense atmosphere of international relations today, to fall back into old ways and ruin the bridges that have been rebuilt since 2006. Yet I am quietly hopeful.

If both nations recognise their shortcomings and atone for them, the storm clouds can and will part in the South Pacific.

Tiger Shen is a freshman studying History at Oxford University. He is the blogger for Oceania Affairs.

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