Last week's coup in Fiji is just the latest example of what is rapidly becoming a fact of life in the South Pacific: The small resource-starved islands of the region have become potential sources of instability with far-reaching implications. If these islands become locked in an internal ``settling of accounts'' - ethnic or otherwise - or if they become bogged down in quarrels with their neighbors, then their inevitable dependence on outside aid could increasingly make them targets of international competition.
Soviet commercial and fishing gains here could heighten outside competition for influence in the area and increase intelligence advantages over the movement of United States naval vessels. There are already signs of increased Libyan and Soviet activity in the area - once a nearly exclusive domain for Australian and New Zealand commerce and aid. This has increased US and Japanese concern.
At press time, the military coup led by Fijian Army Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka was not threatening to invite immediate major outside involvement. Australian Prime Minister Robert Hawke was reported to have ruled out military intervention against the first coup of its kind in the region. The governments of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands offered peaceful mediation.
[Reuters reports that Fiji governor-general, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, has agreed to install an Army-backed rebel council as a caretaker government but threatens to resign unless it restores parliamentary rule quickly, a military spokesman said Monday. Mr. Ganilau set four conditions for staying on, which the spokesman said the rebel administration had accepted: dismantling the military government, restoring press freedoms, releasing all those detained in the coup, and withdrawing troops to the barracks. A timetable has not yet been worked out.]
Perhaps the most fundamental question the coup raises is whether ethnic tensions among Fiji's 715,000 inhabitants can be harmoniously managed or whether new resentments would lay the groundwork for continuing instability. Many of the coup leaders are native Melanesians, who form 47 percent of the population. A coalition of Melanesians and ethnic Indians (49 percent of the population) had supported the overthrown government of Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra.
It was reported this weekend that the new military rulers have pledged a constitutional revision to prevent any ethnic Indian governments being voted into office in future. This would protect native Fiji land rights and customs. Over the weekend, Fiji troops were reported to have dispersed crowds of Indians protesting the coup. Most of the Indians are descended from the sugar workers brought in by the British in the 19th century.
Whatever the ultimate result, the coup seemed to forestall the more nationalistic, nonaligned course the new government, elected last month, had pledged. As supported by the former prime minister of 17 years, the coup appeared to head off any move in the more ``radical'' direction, such as that pursued by Vanuatu.
The coup has shattered the region's ``rules of the game'' and raised the specter of unpredictable internal grievances which could later be externally exploited.
Last month, reports of Libyan police training for recruits from the nonaligned island-state of Vanuatu sparked a flurry of Australian press controversy. They were taken up in Wellington consultations between Australia's foreign minister and his New Zealand counterpart. The talks indicated, in the view of an Australian Embassy spokesman in Washington, that despite Australia's rejection of New Zealand's refusal to allow US nuclear-armed ships to visit, both nations continue their close cooperation over common interests in the area.
According to some reports, Vanuatan security officials have visited Libya for training. Libya was said to be supplying pistols and training, via Vanuatu, for insurgents fighting French rule in New Caledonia. (Libya has been fighting French-backed Chadian troops in North Africa for several years.)
These developments sparked officially unconfirmed reports that both Australia and New Zealand assured Vanuatu they would not intervene in the islands' internal affairs in reprisal for the alleged Libyan dealings.
The prospect for Libyan and/or Soviet involvement for a Melanesian independence group which opposes French rule in New Caledonia and the presence of French and Indochinese settlers has drawn the attention of the US, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
With the approval of the US, Australia, and New Zealand, Japan announced late last year it would increase aid to the South Pacific islands - a move widely seen as competition for the growing Soviet fisheries and commercial presence in the area.
While the Libyan presence has been dramatized by reports of terrorist training concerning New Caledonia, a Soviet fishing deal with Vanuatu has demonstrated growing Soviet involvement with the area. Under a one-year agreement revealed Jan. 27, eight Soviet vessels would be allowed to fish within Vanuatu's claimed 200-mile limit for $1.5 million. Supply access to ports would be allowed, with the possibility that Aeroflot charter rights for crew rotation would be later negotiated.
Frederic A. Moritz, an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University's School of Communications, is the Monitor's former correspondent in Asia.