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Another diplomatic spat with Fiji

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COMMENTS

4 November 2009 15:09

Fiji's military leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, yesterday announced the expulsion from Fiji of Australian High Commissioner James Batley and Acting New Zealand High Commissioner Todd Cleaver. The decision was a signal of Bainimarama's unhappiness with advice on the applicability of travel bans that Australian officials gave to Sri Lankan judges on secondment to Fiji's judiciary.

Curiously, the Australian Government very recently offered an olive branch to Fiji by agreeing to upgrade the status of Fiji's Acting High Commissioner, Kamlesh Arya in Canberra to full High Commissioner status. 

In expelling James Batley, Bainimarama has also recalled Arya to Suva – an unusually prescient move, which left Australia holding few cards it could stomach dealing in retaliation. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has now announced the formal expulsion of Kamlesh Arya, which was the minimum retaliatory action Canberra could take. Smith has been clear that the Australian response would be proportionate, which it certainly is, and that Australia wanted to continue to have diplomatic relations with Fiji.

For New Zealand, it will be the third time their most senior diplomatic representative has been expelled by Bainimarama. The Australian Government would have been expecting retaliation from Fiji since Fiji was suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum. James Batley would have long had a bag packed ready for immediate departure.

Bainimarama clearly acted out of anger but in asserting Fiji's sovereignty, he has further isolated Fiji from the international community. This action is targeted at Canberra and Wellington but will be taken as a sign of Fiji's unreliability by other partners, including the European Union, the US and even China. 

In his announcement, Bainimarama recognised the importance of Fiji's relations with Australia and New Zealand but failed to see that Fiji is not nearly as important to Australia as Australia is to Fiji. Australia remains the single largest source of investment into Fiji. Australia is Fiji's fourth largest export market, after Singapore, the US and the UK, and its second largest source of imports. Fjii enjoys a substantial surplus in services trade with Australia, thanks to the popularity of Fiji as a tourist destination. Fiji is only Australia's 47th largest trading partner. 

While Australia would clearly prefer to have a good relationship with Fiji to advance its regional interests, Canberra can cope with a weak relationship because it does not need investment, tourists, goods or foreign exchange from Fiji. The reverse is not true for Suva.

Australians and New Zealanders form by far the largest percentage of tourist arrivals in Fiji. Australian visitor arrivals in Fiji in 2008 totalled 247,608 or 42.3 per cent of total arrivals. New Zealand visitor arrivals last year totalled 100,018 or 17 per cent of total arrivals. According to the Reserve Bank of Fiji, tourism contributes 24 per cent of GDP and is the largest earner of foreign exchange. Australia and New Zealand both have significant populations of migrants from Fiji. The Fiji-born community in Australia numbers approximately 50,000 people. Both Australia and New Zealand are highly valued by Fiji citizens seeking higher education and specialist medical attention. 

The expulsion of the Australian and New Zealand High Commissioners may not induce most Australians and New Zealanders to reconsider their travel. It nevertheless sends a negative signal to the rest of the world that Fiji is prepared to damage further its relations with the two countries who contribute most to its GDP, foreign exchange and employment. 

Bainimarama's expulsion of James Batley is likely to be perceived by international assessors of credit ratings and investment risk as further evidence of unpredictable governance, which may decrease Fiji's already low declining credit ratings.

Fiji has every right to assert and protect its sovereignty. The military government, however, needs to give very serious thought to just how far Fiji, a country which depends on its links with Australia and New Zealand for a significant proportion of its wealth and opportunities, can afford to isolate itself from the world.

Australia, for its part, will now have to work extra hard to increase its influence on Fiji without the talents of its most experienced Pacific diplomat.

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