Foreign relations of Fiji

Fiji maintains an independent, but generally pro-Western, foreign policy. It has traditionally had close relations with the United Kingdom, as well as with its major trading partners Australia and New Zealand. These relations cooled after both the 1987 and 2000 coups, and Fiji was suspended for a time from the Commonwealth of Nations, a grouping of mostly former British colonies.

It was readmitted to the Commonwealth in December 2001, following the parliamentary election held to restore democracy in September that year. Other Pacific Island governments have generally been sympathetic to Fiji’s internal political problems and have declined to take public positions.

Fiji became the 127th member of the United Nations on October 13, 1970, and participates actively in the organization. Fiji’s contributions to UN peacekeeping are unique for a nation of its size. It maintains nearly 1,000 soldiers overseas in UN peacekeeping missions, mainly in the Middle East.

Since independence, Fiji has been a leader in the South Pacific region, and has played a leading role in the formation of the South Pacific Forum. Fiji has championed causes of common interest to Pacific Island countries.

Diplomatic and trade developments

As of 2005, Fiji has become embroiled in a number of disagreements with other countries, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, China, and Vanuatu.

Tensions with the United States

On 2 March 2005, Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase strongly reacted to a U.S. State Department report criticizing Fiji for practicing racial discriminiation, and for the racial divide between Fiji’s two main political parties, the SDL (mostly indigenous Fijian) and the Fiji Labour Party (mostly Indo-Fijian). “Fiji can make a similar report on the US on all those issues. Our report would be far worse than the US State Department’s report on Fiji,” he said. He went on to rebuke the United States for interfering in Fiji’s “domestic affairs.”

In an interview with the Fiji Times on 29 May 2005, America’s outgoing Ambassador David Lyons renewed his country’s criticism of Fijian policies by criticizing the Qarase government’s proposed Reconciliation and Unity Commission. Lyons expressed concern that its provisions for amnesty for persons convicted of involvement in the coup d’etat that overthrew the elected government in 2000 would encourage further coups in the future.

“If a democratic society doesn’t make it clear that the violent over-throw of its elected leaders is a crime against that society, I have to think that it is inviting future upheaval,” he said. He also condemned statements of public figures predicting coups if they, their party, or their race is not successful in the next parliamentary election, saying that such threats were “absolutely despicable in a free, democratic society” and constituted “the worst form of scaremongering.”

Lyons said that the amnesty for perpetrators of the 1987 coups had been an error of judgement and had set a precedent which could negatively affect the future unless stopped now. He concurred with statements made by a number of Fijian politicians, including deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and Senator Adi Koila Nailatikau, that a coup culture had taken root in Fiji.

He warned that tourism, which forms the mainstay of the Fijian economy, would be adversely impacted by any further instability. He believed, he said, that the Qarase government was sincere in its commitment to democracy, and acknowledged positive steps taken by the government to restore the rule of law. He added a word of caution, however: “All of these positive steps … will vanish in an instant if there is another coup or sufficient political upheaval questioning the legitimacy of future elections.”

On 12 July, however, Lyons cautioned the Fijian Military against using the legislation as a pretext for a coup d’etat. Their concern over the proposed law was understandable, he said, but it did warrant the overthrow of the government. “Extra constitutional action against a duly elected democratic government … is unacceptable,” he said. A coup would be detrimental not only to Fiji, but to the entire Pacific region, Lyons said.

Relations with Australia

On 13 April 2005, Qarase rejected criticism from Australia and some other countries over the prosecution and imprisonment of two foreigners charged with committing homosexual acts, which are illegal in Fiji, and said that other countries needed to respect Fiji’s independence. Qarase said that as member of the United Nations, Fiji was as entitled as any other country to make its own laws as it saw fit.

The Australian government has taken a more measured position than its New Zealand counterpart (q.v.) over the controversial Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Unity Bill currently being debated in the Fijian Parliament. Susan Boyd, a former Australian High Commissioner to Fiji, has strongly criticized the legislation, but Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has said that it is an “internal matter” and that Australia does not want to get involved.

He did, however, condemn recent threats from the Military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, to declare martial law and arrest members of the present government if the bill is passed. The Australian High Commission in Suva told Bainimarama that his threats are not “the proper role for the military in a democracy.”

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer visited Fiji for two days of talks, from 28-30 September 2005. Downer met government ministers and officials, Opposition Leader Mahendra Chaudhry, and Military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama. The talks covered the controversial Unity bill, as well as the future of Fiji’s preferential trade access to the Australian market, which the Fijian government regards as a priority. Downer said that he intended to elaborate further on Prime Minister John Howard’s promise of a seven-year extension of the SPARTECA-TCF scheme, which assists Fiji’s textile, clothing, and footwear industry.

Foreign Minister Tavola expressed grave concern on 7 February 2006 about a proposed Regional Trade Agreement (RTA) between Australia and China, saying that Fiji’s exports to Australia would be unable to compete with Chinese products. For that reason, Fiji was persisting in its efforts to persuade Australia to renew the South Pacific Regional Trade and Economic Cooperation – Textile Clothing Footwear (SPARTECA-TCF) scheme, to improve the competitiveness of Fijian exports, the Fiji Live news service reported.

Relations with China and Taiwan

A diplomatic row with the People’s Republic of China erupted on 5 May 2005, when Taiwan (ROC) President Chen Shui-bian arrived for a private visit and was welcomed at a private function at Suva’s Sheraton Resort by Vice-President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, Ratu Ovini Bokini (Chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs), Senate President Taito Waqavakatoga and several other Senators and MPs, and several judges including Chief Justice Daniel Fatiaki. Foreign Minister Kaliopate Tavola asserted that those who attended the welcoming ceremony did so “of their own accord,” not as government representatives, and that Prime Minister Qarase’s presence in the same hotel where President Chen was staying was purely “coincidental.” Chinese Ambassador Cai Jin Biao rejected this explanation, and said that the visit was a violation of the One China Policy, to which Fiji had agreed when diplomatic relations were established in 1975, which would “sabotage relations between China and Fiji.” He charged that Prime Minister Qarase and Foreign Minister Tavola had known of the upcoming visit for months. The embassy issued a further statement on 7 May, demanding that Fiji discontinue any effort to establish a dialogue with Taiwan.

The row escalated when, on 16 May, Health Minister Solomone Naivalu voted in support of Taiwan’s bid to gain observer status at the World Health Assembly in Geneva. Naivalu had apparently done so on his own initiative, contrary to a government briefing, sparking a major public disagreement between himself and Foreign Minister Tavola. Jia Qinglin, chairman of the People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), was dispatched to Fiji and met Prime Minister Qarase during a brief stopover on 21-22 May, a move that Tavola said was not coincidental. He said that Fiji could not afford to lose China, and that the government would ensure that “careless incidences” like Naivalu’s vote in Geneva would not recur. Naivalu responded by saying that his vote was nothing new: “We always support Taiwan to get observer status every year,” he said.

On 10 December 2005, the New Zealand Herald quoted Tavola as saying that Fiji would have to find a way to resolve a stand-off between the PRC and Taiwan, over membership of the Suva-based Council of South Pacific Tourism Organisation; China was resisting Taiwanese attempts to join the organization on an equal basis. “If China had its way it would not want Taiwan on that. So we have to resolve the situation amicably and are looking at how both countries can be represented there,”‘Tavola said.

In defence of the earlier incident over the Taiwanese President’s visit, Tavola said that it was the Pacific way to welcome people. “Even when considering Taiwan as a province of China, he went on, the President of a province is a man of high profile, so when he comes there is an urge to extend hospitality.” It did not signify any modification to Fiji’s adherence to the One China policy, he had explained to the Chinese ambassador.

China has invested in a number of major projects in Fiji. These include the Suva sports stadium, built for the South Pacific Games of 2003.

On 14 December 2005, Fiji’s Military Commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama began an official visit to China, at the invitation of the People’s Liberation Army. He reaffirmed Fiji’s support for the One China policy.

It was announced on 24 January 2006 that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao would visit Fiji in April to open the China-Pacific Islands Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum Ministerial Conference 2006 at Sofitel Fiji Resort in Nadi, a conference of economic and trade ministers from Pacific island countries. Six Prime Ministers from neighbouring countries are expected to participate, according to a Fiji Times report on 23 February. His visit to Fiji will be the first by a senior Chinese government official.

In an interview with PACNEWS on 1 February 2006, Jeremaia Waqanisau, Fiji’s Ambassador to Beijing, made a stinging attack on the efficiency of the Fijian civil service, saying that it negatively affected Fiji’s ability to present itself to China. Cabinet Ministers visited China without the Fijian embassy being informed, he complained. Certain civil servants were extremely passive in their dealings with China, he said. Another factor inhibiting Chinese investment was the instability caused by friction between the government and the Military, he surmised, and the Fijian embassy in Beijing was continually engaged in damage control.

Relations with New Zealand

On 10 June 2005, Foreign Minister Tavola signed a Memorandum of Understanding with his New Zealand counterpart, Phil Goff, aimed at fostering cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Meanwhile, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark announced that New Zealand would double its annual aid to Fiji, from NZ$4 million to NZ$8 million. Much of this aid, the Fijian government revealed, would be used for poverty alleviation and squatter resettlement.

New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters (who replaced Goff in late 2005) flew into Fiji on 8 February 2006 for three days of talks with Fijian government officials. He met Prime Minister Qarase, Finance Minister Ratu Jone Kubuabola, and Military Commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama on the first day of his visit; meetings with Foreign Minister Tavola and House of Representatives Speaker Ratu Epeli Nailatikau were held later. The meeting with Bainimarama attracted some media attention; Bainimarama said that the meeting had been approved by Prime Minister Qarase and that there was nothing underhand about it.

The talks are to cover such matters as the Pacific Plan and a cost-sharing agreement for a citizen education project, promoted by the United Nations Development Programme.

Concern over reduced British presence

Foreign Minister Tavola expressed concern on 11 July about moves by the British government to reduce its presence in the Pacific region. “We were not happy with that and on occasions, informed them of the folly of their decision to downsize their presence in the Pacific,” Tavola said. Britain has already closed its consulate in Kiribati and plans to close its missions in Tonga this year and Vanuatu next year. Britain has also withdrawn from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, a regional organization of which it was a founding member and a major donor.

Tavola said the British withdrawal could create a power vacuum which others could exploit. A new Cold War era could come to the Pacific region, he said, with rivalries between China and Taiwan, as well as between China and Japan.

Trade war with Vanuatu

On 11 March 2005, Vanuatu imposed a ban in biscuit imports, ostensibly to protect its own biscuit manufacturing industry, giving a monopoly on the business to the Santo-based Wong Sze Sing store. The ban was the second in a year. Bread and breakfast cereals produced by Flour Mills of Fiji (FMF) were the worst-hit; the company claimed to be losing F$2 million annually.

Fiji retaliated on 13 June with a threat to impose a total commercial embargo on Vanuatu. Major income-earners for Vanuatu targeted by the Fijian government include Vanuatu kava, valued at almost US$3.2 million, and Air Vanuatu flights (US$8 million).

On 29 June, Foreign Minister Tavola said that Fiji was “running out of patience” and that he was writing to the government of Vanuatu in what he called a “final gesture of friendship.”

On 27 July, Vanuatu’s Trade Minister James Bule signed an order lifting the ban, effective from 22 July. No reason was given for the change of policy, but the Fiji Live news service reported that the decision averted a lawsuit from FMF and the threatened kava ban.

Fiji’s Foreign Affairs chief executive officer, Isikeli Mataitoga, said that Fiji’s policy of pursuing diplomatic channels in dealing with such disputes had been vindicated. “Whilst I agree that it can take a bit of time to see it through carefully, it nevertheless, demonstrates to our regional friends that we are principled in our approach to international relations and diplomacy,” Mataitoga said.

There was another twist on 28 July, however, when FMF Chairman Hari Punja called the lifting of the ban a fabrication. He said that in place of the ban, the Vanuatu government had introduced a restrictive new quota system for imports which would make it “impossible” to export to Vanuatu. He called on the Fijian government to continue to pressure its Vanuatu counterparts.

Foreign Minister Tavola denounced the latest move of the Vanuatu government on 3 August, saying that it breached an agreement. On 9 August, he announced that the government had decided to go ahead with its threatened embargo against the importing of Vanuatu kava. On 16 August the Cabinet finalized the decision, banning all imports of Vanuatu kava for six months, after which the ban would be reviewed. On 18 August, Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority chief executive Tevita Banuve said that importers would be given two weeks to clear their kava stock from the wharf. A special license would be granted only to clear the stock, he said. It would not be usable for importing more kava.

On 27 August, Tavola announced that following negotiations at the Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting in Papua New Guinea, he expected the Vanuatu government to lift the biscuit ban soon. If they did so, he said he would ask the Cabinet to lift the embargo against Vanuatu kava.

The Fiji Village news service reported on 11 October that Vanuatu’s Trade Minister, James Bule, would visit Fiji on 25 October. The purpose of the visit would be to deliver his government’s decision to lift the ban on Fijian biscuits, in return for Fiji lifting its ban on Vanuatu kava.

In return for Vanuatu’s lifting of the biscuit ban on 25 October, the Fijian government announced on 7 December that it was lifting its kava ban for the sake of freer trade among the members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

On 22 December 2005, Vanuatu’s Finance Minister Willie Rarua formally apologized to Fiji’s Acting Foreign Minister, Pita Nacuva, for having imposed the ban.

Relations with India

Fiji’s relationship with India is often seen by observers against the backdrop of the sometimes tense relations between its indigenous people and the 38 percent of the population who are of Indian descent. A major diplomatic event for Fiji in 2005 occurred from 8 to 15 October, when Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and Foreign Minister Kaliopate Tavola made an official visit to India.

Relations with Tonga

It was reported on 2 November 2005 that a territorial dispute was looming between Fiji and Tonga over a reef lying to the south of both countries. The people of Ono-i-Lau in the Lau Islands archipelago claim that Minerva Reef is part of their traditional fishing ground. Attorney General Qoriniasi Bale told the Lau Provincial Council that the government had a team of experts preparing a case to be taken to the United Nations International Seabed Authority, which is based in Jamaica. The reef has also been claimed by Tonga since 1972, and Tonga’s Surveyor General, Tevita Malolo, told Radio New Zealand that Fiji had never contested Tonga’s claim until now.

Relations with Papua New Guinea

Relations between Fiji and Papua New Guinea became strained in November 2005, in the wake of revelations that a number of Fijian citizens, possibly mercenaries, had entered Papua New Guinea illegally and were involved in arming and training a separatist militia on the island of Bougainville.

On a separate matter, PNG Trade and Industry Minister Paul Tiensten was quoted in Fiji Village on 21 February 2006 as saying that sanctions against Fiji were being considered, following a Fijian refusal of a PNG kava shipment and an earlier rejection of corned beef shipped from PNG.

Relations with the European Union

The European Union announced on 3 November 2005 that it would increase its assistance to Fijian schools from 2006 onwards. The assistance would cover infrastructure and building, as well as supplying schools with running water and telephone services.

Relations with South Africa

Foreign Minister Kaliopate Tavola announced on 15 February 2006 that South Africa would be the first African country to establish a diplomatic mission in Fiji. Diplomatic relations would open up new opportunities for trade and investment, Tavola said. On 27 February, it was announced that South Africa would be opening a High Commission in Fiji.

Relations with Brazil

Fiji Live reported on 23 February 2006 that Fiji’s United Nations Ambassador Isikia Savua and his Brazilian counterpart Ronaldo Mota Sardenberg had recently signed a communique to establish diplomatic relations. Savua expressed the hope that Fiji’s bio-fuels industry could benefit from Brazilian technology.

Fijian missions abroad

Fiji maintains direct diplomatic or consular relations with countries with historical, cultural, or trading ties to Fiji; Ambassadors stationed in such countries are often accredited to neighbouring countries. Fiji maintains embassies in Belgium (taking care of Fiji’s relations with the entire European Union), China, Japan, and the United States; and High Commissions in Australia, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand (in keeping with the Commonwealth practice of calling missions in fellow-commonwealth countries High Commissions rather than Embassies). Fiji also has a Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

Foreign reaction to Fijian legislation

Australia and New Zealand have both expressed concern over legislation currently before the Fijian Parliament (as of June 2005), which proposes to establish a Reconciliation and Unity Commission, with the power (subject to presidential approval) to compensate victims and pardon persons convicted of crimes related to the coup d’etat which deposed the elected government in 2000.

On 30 August 2005, Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon called on the Fijian government to ensure that the legislation reflected the views of its citizens. He emphasized, however, that the Commonwealth did not have a position on the bill.

Fiji and international organizations

Fiji plays an active role in numerous international bodies. The South Pacific Forum was largely the brainchild of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Fiji’s first Prime Minister. The country has been an outspoken participant many international forums.

Oceania Customs Organisation

On 1 September 2005, it was announced that the Oceania Customs Organization would relocate to Fiji in 2006. Though located in Fiji, it would be totally independent of the Fijian government and of the Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority (FIRCA), Finance Minister Ratu Jone Kubuabola said, and for the first three years of its presence in Fiji, its secretariat would be financed by the New Zealand government.

World Trade Organization

Speaking at the 18th Fiji-Australia Business Forum in Sydney on 17 October 2005, Prime Minister Qarase strongly criticized the World Trade Organization, saying that its policies were unfair to small countries like Fiji. “WTO is trying to impose equality of trade in an unequal world,” he said, “but for developing countries like Fiji there is no level playing field, just a slippery slope.” It would be a long time before Fiji’s economy could compete on equal terms with that of more developed nations, he considered.

International Labour Organization

On 10 January 2006, the Fijian government criticized the International Labour Organization for what it said was the organization’s unfair treatment of the Fiji Islands Congress of Trade Unions (FICTU). Labour Minister Kenneth Zinck said the government had received a complaint from FICTU about the ILO’s discrimination against it in favour of the rival Fiji Trades Union Congress.

Diplomatic initiatives

Speaking at the 6th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York City on 23 May 2005, Isikia Savua, Fiji’s Permanent Representative (Ambassador) to the United Nations, called for equal recognition of individual and collective rights in national and international policies. He said that Fiji had embodied both concepts in its Constitution, through such provisions as communal voting (giving each elector to vote for two members of the House of Representatives, one from his or her own ethnic group, and the other from any ethnic group).

On 1 September 2005, Prime Minister Qarase announced his intention to ask his Australian counterpart, John Howard, for more favourable market access for Pacific Island products. He called on Australia and New Zealand to revise the rules of origin under the SPARTECA trade agreement, and reduce the figure from 50 percent to 35 percent, thereby allowing Fiji to export a higher percentage of garments made elsewhere to Australian and New Zealand markets.

On 28 October 2005, Prime Minister Qarase criticized Australia and New Zealand for refusing to grant temporary work permits to Pacific Islanders. He said the two countries were acting unfairly in assuming that such permits would encourage illegal immigration. The Prime Minister claimed that in the absence of such work permits, Pacific Islanders visiting Australia and New Zealand often undertook illegal employment anyway.