Last Friday Fijian Interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama began his first visit to Australia since taking power in 2006. In response to the 2006 coup, Canberra had imposed travel bans for all members of the Fijian government. These were abandoned earlier this year by the Abbott Government.
One would expect such a visit to be about mending fences and shoring up relations. But Rear Admiral Bainimarama was not visiting Canberra to speak with the Abbott Government. His visit was to Sydney, to meet with Fijian overseas voters as part of his campaign for the Fijian elections next month. Bainimarama is more concerned with gaining support for his Fiji First party than securing the goodwill of the ostensible leader of the Pacific Islands region.
This focus on Fijian domestic affairs even when visiting Australia is symptomatic of the confidence with which the Bainimarama Government has approached regional affairs, and of the fact that it does not feel cowed by the largest power in the region.
Given the success of Fijian foreign policy since 2006, this is not surprising.
Despite the fact that Australia provides Fiji with a significant amount of aid, Fiji does not regard itself as dependent on Australia and has been quite prepared to challenge the Australia-dominated regional status quo. Since 2006 the Bainimarama Government has assertively broadened its international relationships, both within the region and further abroad. While a lot of attention has been given to Fiji's relationship with China, Suva has also strengthened relations with the rest of Melanesia and with global players such as India and Brazil. Overall, Fiji's relations with other states are at their healthiest since independence.
The Bainimarama Government has also mounted a strong challenge to the Australian-backed Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) by launching its own rival organisation. The Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) has now held two successful summits that have garnered significant international attention. While it certainly doesn't have the resources of the PIF, the PIDF looks set to stay, and significantly blunts the impact of Fiji's ongoing suspension from the PIF.
This strengthened web of bilateral and multilateral relations has given the Bainimarama Government the maneuvering room it needs to take a confident stance against its Australian critics. When Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Suva last February to start on the road towards normalising the relationship, Fijian sources confidently proclaimed that this was Australia's last chance to remain relevant.
The decision by the Abbott Government to lift sanctions in February had raised hopes that there might be a warming of relations between Fiji and Australia. Those hopes were always expressed cautiously, but six months on there has been little sign that the Bainimarama Government has been swayed by Canberra's softened stance. When the campaign trail led Rear Admiral Bainimarama to New Zealand earlier this month, he bluntly said that he doesn't consider Australia a part of the Pacific Islands region. A harsh statement, given that Australia is a founding member of the PIF.
Furthermore, the Bainimarama Government remains determined to hold elections in Fiji in the manner it sees fit, including by passing controversial electoral legislation just over a month before the poll date. Forcing a return to democracy had been a key goal of the Australian sanctions regime, but in that respect appeasement appears to have had as little effect as confrontation. The rhetoric and policies enacted by Suva have not changed since 2006, nor will they unless the Rear Admiral is handed an unlikely defeat on 17 September.
This is not to say that abandoning the sanctions regime was a bad decision. There is nothing to be gained from maintaining an ineffective regime of sanctions that gave the Bainimarama Government rhetorical ammunition in its attempts to reshape the order of the region to its liking. But it is important to point out that lifting them has not healed the rift between Canberra and Suva.
If the Abbott Government wants to reassert the full measure of Australian influence then more work is required not only in Fiji but also in the rest of the Pacific Islands. The fact that the Bainimarama Government weathered Australian sanctions without feeling the need to compromise will have implications that will be felt for some time in what John Howard described as 'our patch'.