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Home » » Fiji issue expected to dominate next MSG summit

Fiji issue expected to dominate next MSG summit

Written By Voice Of Baptist Papua on February 9, 2011 | 12:57 AM

The role of Fiji within the Pacific looks set to dominate the Melanesian Spearhead Group again this year, according to an Australian academic.
The MSG members - Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, plus the pro-independence front of New Caledonia - are due to meet in Fiji for their next talks within two months.
West Papua is an ongoing issue for the group, but the main focus is on the diplomatic manoeuvring of the MSG, which is currently chaired by Fiji... compared to the Pacific Island Forum, which voted to suspend Fiji in 2009.
Add to this is the international element, with Australia and New Zealand keen to isolate Fiji's interim military government... while China last year backed Fiji's challenge to the Forum, when it held the so-called 'Engaging Fiji' meeting - seen as a deliberate snub to the Pacific Forum.

Dr Ronald May is a senior associate in the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, at the Australian National University's School of Pacific and Asian Studies.

He's just released a policy analysis paper on the MSG for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speaker: Dr Ronald May from the Australian National University

DR MAY: The Chinese funded that exercise and I think that was also due in part to seeing an opportunity to exert a bit more influence in the region at a time when Australia and New Zealand were lobbying very strongly against countries attending the Fiji meeting. I think that's an indication of how things have gone. I think Australia and New Zealand are in a slightly difficult position. The Pacific Island Forum not just under the influence of Australia and New Zealand. It is certainly supported by Australia and New Zealand suspended Fiji's membership from the Pacific Island Forum, so they Australia, made it quite clear that it would be happy if not too many countries came to the Fiji meeting. In fact they did, which was seen as a bit of a victory for Fiji and I suspect that the Chinese would see this as a good opportunity to acquire a bit more influence in the region perhaps at the expense of Australia and New Zealand.

COCHRANE: Now you argue in the paper that the Melanesian Spearhead Group has the potential to rival the other major regional forum, the Pacific Islands Forum but that it won't. Can you explain why it won't?

DR MAY: Well, I think there is a lot of concern, particularly in Australia that Bainimarama may see the mild success in the Fiji meeting as setting up the MSG as a rival to the Pacific Island Forum. The concern is probably a bit exaggerated. The Pacific Island Forum which includes all the island Pacific countries has a fairly well founded history, the solidarity of the meeting on a number of issues has been significant in the past. I think what people tend to underestimate is the potential splits within the Melanesian Spearhead Group. The Melanesian Spearhead Group has maintained the membership of Fiji and they have on occasions come out and supported the policies of Bainimarama and his strategic plan and the postponement of the election, whereas the Pacific Island Forum has maintained his suspension. So the Melanesian Spearhead Group countries have been a bit inconsistent on this. On the one hand, they have endorsed him at the MSG meetings. On the other hand, they have supported the continued suspension of the Pacific Island Forum meetings. There are also differences on some other issues I think particularly the issue of West Papua. Vanuatu has initiated moves to support the West Papuan claim for a new look at the or a re-examination of the 1962 agreement and the so-called act of free choice in 1961 by which West Papua was integrated into the Indonesian republic. Certainly Papua New Guinea has not supported that and some of the other Melanesian countries I think have their doubts about that.
COCHRANE: Now we may have already touched on them in the discussion, but what do you see as some of the big issues for the MSG in 2011?

DR MAY: Well, I guess the big issue will be the continuing recent issue of how to deal with Fiji. I think the Melanesian Spearhead Group will probably see its role in sort of heading off some of the more harsh criticisms, particularly from Australia and New Zealand of Fiji, but also of maintaining pressure on Fiji. I guess the elections that were put off to 2014. Two thousand and 14 is not so far away now, but I think the Melanesian position has been that isolating Fiji is not a good move, that it will simply push Fiji towards other countries, like China and may be even the Arab League, but it will push them in another direction. So I think the Melanesian position has been that the best tactic is to try and continue engaging Fiji in discussion and hoping that the regime will come round to a resumption of democracy in the not to distant future.

COCHRANE: Having said that though, the ongoing dialogue hasn't really had anymore results than the Australian-New Zealand stance, which is to try and get sanctions and put pressure on them in a different way. I mean is it a case of both tactics not really working?

DR MAY: I think that's right. On the other hand, in the longer term, the tactic of trying to engage Fiji and keep a dialogue going is essentially a more productive one than trying to isolate the country, because I think it is quite clear now that Bainimarama is not going to react to isolation and opposition from what he perceives as groups dominated by Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, particularly following the relative success of the meeting it at in Fiji. I think even Bainimarama will want to keep his lines of dialogue open with the other Pacific Island countries. So I think in the longer term, not only the Melanesian Spearhead Group, but I think also Australia and New Zealand probably could do well to examine their own policies on trying to isolate Fiji and see if there is any way of getting a dialogue going that might shift a fairly intransigent regime a bit more towards a position that is acceptable in the region.
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