Next month Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will host a meeting of Pacific leaders to discuss Pacific regionalism and the future of the Pacific Islands Forum. The key subtext of the meeting will be the re-integration of Fiji into regional economic, security and political structures, following its 2009 suspension from the Commonwealth and the Forum.
Fiji's September 2014 elections have opened the way for re-engagement with the FijiFirst Government led by Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama. Officials from Canberra and Wellington are eagerly re-establishing links with the Fiji Military Forces (officer training in Canberra, participation in joint exercises, an invitation to the next South Pacific Defence Ministers' Meeting, an RNZAF Orion aircraft to patrol Fiji's EEZ...the list goes on).
But anyone who expects the Fiji military to come kowtowing to the ANZUS allies may be in for a shock.
One straw in the wind is Prime Minister Bainimarama's 30 January speech at a ceremony for the surviving Fijian military personnel who were deployed for the UK's Christmas Island nuclear tests in 1957-58. The text is worth reading for its insights on contemporary Pacific attitudes towards great and powerful allies.
Successive British governments have refused to provide compensation to Fijians soldiers and sailors exposed to hazardous ionising radiation during the development of the British H-bomb. A 2004 legal case lodged in the UK by British, New Zealand and Fijian veterans has been dragging on for a decade, with the UK Ministry of Defence fighting liability every inch of the way.
In his speech to veterans and families on 30 January, Bainimarama noted: 'Fiji is not prepared to wait for Britain to do the right thing. We owe it to these men to help them now, not wait for the British politicians and bureaucrats.'
He added: 'We salute you for following your orders at the time, the orders of a colonial power pursuing its own agenda in the world. You are living testament to our determination to never again allow our pristine Pacific environment to be violated by outside powers in such a destructive and terrible manner.'
The issue is personal for the Fiji Prime Minister: his late father Ratu Inoke Bainimarama led the initial Fijian contingent of 39 sailors to witness the first UK test on Malden Island in May 1957. It seems Fiji's PM will not be handing out knighthoods to the British monarchy any time soon!
But the speech was not just about historical injustice. Bainimarama said the spread of nuclear weapons is 'a form of madness that we in the Pacific — the ocean that takes its name from the word "peace" — find incomprehensible':
This is why we will always be on the side of those nations pressing for the dismantling of the world's nuclear arsenals...As one, the Pacific nations stand and say: Never again. Just as we implore the industrialised nations now to stand with us in the battle against rising sea levels caused by the carbon emissions they cause, we also implore them to join us in our commitment to make the Pacific nuclear free.
With Prime Minister Bainimarama playing the nuclear-free Pacific card, don't expect Fiji to fall into line with Australian support for extended nuclear deterrence, a policy beloved by most Canberra 'realists.'
Attitudes to great and powerful friends are changing in Pacific Commonwealth countries. Fiji's 2011 membership of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and 2013 role as chair of the 'G77 plus China' has transformed its foreign policy outlook. And Fiji is not the only island nation taking independent foreign policy initiatives. The current crop of Pacific leaders — Joe Natuman, Manasseh Sogavare, 'Akilisi Pohiva and more — have perspectives that don't mesh with Canberra's worldview. There may be some interesting discussion at next month's regional gathering.
Around the region, people are questioning where the Pacific fits into Australia's priorities. A series of government decisions have been noticed by our neighbours: the gutting of Radio Australia; the $12 billion cut from the projected aid budget over the next four years; Australia's active opposition to the AOSIS agenda at UN climate negotiations; the reallocation of funding for climate adaptation; the sacking of Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Brett Mason...the list goes on.
The last time an Australian prime minister attended a Forum leaders' meeting was 2012. It will be interesting to see if Prime Minister Abbott can spare some time this year for regional engagement Last year, I lost $50 betting that Abbott would turn up for his first Forum meeting in Palau. Having doubled the bet, I'm hoping there's time in his busy schedule for a trip to the 2015 Forum in Papua New Guinea!
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.