According to SBS World News (29, July, 2013) Fiji’s foreign minister ‘launched an acidic broadside against the [Australian] governments plan to send asylum seekers [to] Papua New Guinea’ and further warned that it ‘could alter the social fabric of the Pacific Islands.’
Whist this statement specifically refers to the asylum seeker issue and Australia’s role in it, there is more that underpins the issue than the asylum seeker debate. Australia’s policy toward asylum seekers and the consequences for Melanesia in this instance was the major portion of the specific complaint and Foreign Minister Kubuabola backed it up by accusing Australia of using its ‘economic muscle’ to solve its own domestic political problem, that of boat-arrivals. Whilst this may be true, the minister then outlined the definitive point of contention from Fiji’s standpoint, however there is much to be read into the statement than its actual utterance.
By expressing the opinion in such a forthright manner a strong signal is being sent: Fiji will not be dictated to by Australia, and it will offer an opinion on the region regardless of whether its ‘place’ in the region is dictated to by a regional major power. By ‘place’ I also mean Australia dictating that Fiji must have an acceptable form of government and governance which must adhere to being a just liberal-democracy, and conform to the principles therein. To be sure, since the military takeover of Fiji’s government in 1996 Australia has—along with New Zealand—been a solid voice in the region demanding Fiji return to its liberal-democratic status sooner rather than later. Fiji for instance, would be right to question why Australia has dealt with Singapore—which is effectively a dictatorship—for decades and not objected to its government and governance.
Having established the direct message of its discontent Fiji has, in a sense also expressed an independence-of-thinking that cosmopolitan nation-states are wont to do regardless of their regional status, and the sign Fiji is sending is that there are changes afoot and Australia would be foolish to ignore them. There has I would argue, always existed in Australia a feeling that Oceania, whilst it may at times have its troubles, will always remain loyal to its two major neighbour and regional powers: Australia and New Zealand. The statement of Minister Kubuabola is no doubt underpinned by an historic and sometimes deep resentment of Australia, whether it be with regard to not assisting the region enough, or of having mismanaged aspects of regional needs, and moreover it does show a significant discontent with Australian attitudes and policies. This is not unlike the types of resentments Caribbean nations harbour toward their powerful neighbour the United States.
Oceania therefore, is signalling it will not remain what it ‘was’ in terms of being a passive observer and this is what Australia needs to understand. Fiji speaking out against Australian policy signals it has found a new voice and this is something that Australia will need to tolerate in the future, especially as the Asian Century comes to fruition and Fiji, within the region, will play its part in the regional balance-of-power stakes.
As the region begins its ‘drift’ into the ‘Asian century’ there will be more of the same and whether or not Fiji returns to be a liberal-democracy will not diminish its commentary on the region. The comment regarding Australia’s action stems from, I would argue, the minister detecting there is change in the air: the rise of China has given a new found confidence to his nation which has largely been at the behest of Australia’s attitudes and policies. The current tempest will pale into insignificance as Fiji’s ‘recalcitrance’ toward Australia and New Zealand increases as China incrementally and then exponentially, influences Fijian policy toward Australia. In simpler terms, Fiji will come to favour China over and above Australia’s regional geo-strategic needs and the shifting of asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea (PNG)—and the perceived taking advantage of one of Fiji’s Melanesian neighbours—will generate a political wedge which Fiji will be able to utilize to its advantage when dealings with its neighbours.
The power-balance in the Asia-Pacific, including Oceania and Melanesia will change drastically in the next decade, and Australians should be acutely aware of this; and be much more considerate of their neighbours when undertaking foreign policy objectives. At the present time PNG remains on friendly terms with Australia, however Australia would be foolish to think that in the twenty-first century, without a more articulate input into the region, that things will remain as they are. This does not suggest PNG would become an enemy of Australia, only that it too will develop more options, especially with regard to issues such as aid, infrastructure and policing/military supplies.
Australia should desist from making decisions in the region with the same intent and mindset that it had in the post-World War Two era and late twentieth century. Times not only are changing rapidly they will continue to do so, and Australia would do well to consider the difference the ongoing shrinkage of time and space (read: Globalization) that is being experienced by regional neighbours will bring in relative terms. It is not too long a bow to draw that a seismic shift in allegiances from the current Australia-United States stance to a more focussed China-Indonesia (and possibly with the inclusion of India) will take place by Australia’s neighbours. What this means is, unless Australia’s neighbours are treated with the utmost respect and dignity, regardless of whether Australia agrees with the form of government and governance, their needs must be taken into account as the rise of China in the region will offer country’s such as Fiji, an alternative Australia-free vision of their future.