February 17, 2014

The Australian: Bainimarama gamble may be winning hand


JULIE Bishop doesn’t lack nerve. She called in the Chinese ambassador when Beijing sought to extend its claims over disputed areas of neighbouring seas, through which most Australian trade travels.
She stood her ground in the recent difficulties with Indonesia. And now she has flown to Fiji to repair the most awkward relationship Australia has suffered in the whole Asia-Pacific region for more than seven years.
This is not mission impossible, but it is not without profound risks.
As Ms Bishop well knows from her official briefings and from her conversations with other regional politicians still bruised from the encounters, Commodore Frank Bainimarama is an unpredictable and prickly figure to deal with.
Her meeting could have gone badly, leaving Australia in a worse position diplomatically.
Mr Bainimarama might have called it off at the last moment, equally embarrassingly.
But sufficient groundwork went in to the encounter - through patient efforts by long-suffering officials, and through Ms Bishop’s own meetings with Fiji’s Foreign Minister Inoke Kubuobola - to give it a strong chance. It went ahead, the atmospherics were excellent, and so the new-deal relationship is already up and running.
Much can still go wrong though.
Mr Bainimarama might not go ahead with his planned resignation from the military at the end of the month.
The new political party whose details he will announce on March 1 may fail so patently to gather support that he might call off the election, leaving everyone in the lurch and much egg on Canberra’s and especially Ms Bishop’s face. Human rights violations may recur. But fortune sometimes favours the brave, and in the context of Fiji today, the odds appear to be leaning towards the election going ahead, with the country returning towards a more recognisable rule of law.
One of the factors driving Ms Bishop’s dramatic move to repair the relationship is Fiji’s centrality to the whole Pacific islands region - not just geographic, but in economic, transport and cultural terms. Australia’s effective detachment from Fiji has thus in some ways locked it out of the Pacific heartland - although other island nations that have remained stoutly democratic naturally look to Canberra to continue to provide leadership over democratic values, as the largest such nation in the region.

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