Diplomatic shifts in South Pacific

Once accused of acting too colonial, New Zealand and Australia focus more on Asia, less on Fiji and Solomons.

Things generally move slowly in the South Pacific - except when they don't. Two coups in a month - first in Fiji, then in the Solomon Islands - have produced rapid-fire surprises for a region unaccustomed to surprises.

Australia and New Zealand were miffed, particularly by the armed indigenous Fijian uprising on May 19. "We had absolutely no warning about this at all," Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, said the day of the coup.

But to experts on the South Pacific, there was nothing astonishing about the Fiji coup. Australia and - to a lesser degree - New Zealand have turned away from Pacific island states in recent years and increasingly cast their attention toward Asia.

The two countries were once accused of acting like pseudo-colonial big brothers in the region, and knowledge of the territory ran deep. Now though, they've adopted a regimen that Stephen Hoadley, an international relations expert at New Zealand's University of Auckland, says often teeters on "benign neglect." For Australia in particular, Mr. Hoadley argues, "the Indian Ocean now looms a lot larger than the Pacific."

Both Mr. Downer and Phil Goff, his New Zealand counterpart, have been vocal on the recent crises in both Fiji and the Solomon Islands, where an armed uprising two weeks ago followed 18 months of ethnic tension on the island of Guadalcanal. Both have referred to George Speight, the former insurance salesman who led the coup in Fiji, as a terrorist and threatened sanctions.

But with the crisis in Fiji now in its second month and a solution in the Solomons seeming distant, there's been a telling lack of real action from both countries, analysts say. And when they have been involved it has been under the umbrella of the British Commonwealth.

A Commonwealth delegation was in Fiji over the weekend and yesterday there were signs a solution was near, even if the country's elected prime minister, the still-captive Mahendra Chaudhry, is unlikely to be part of it.

Mr. Speight and the military government that imposed martial law as a result of the crisis, yesterday agreed on who would occupy the largely ceremonial presidential seat in a new interim government. Speight, who accused the military of trying to kill him last week, seemed more upbeat yesterday. He said, "We have gotten over one big obstacle."

The coup leader has claimed throughout the bizarre standoff that he acted on behalf of indigenous Fijians against Chaudhry's multiracial government, which he felt was too closely tied to Fiji's ethnic Indian population. A remnant of British colonialism, ethnic Indians are the country's economic engine, dominating its business sector for years.

But Speight has managed to slow the country's tourist- and sugar cane-driven economy to a crawl. The normally crowded hotels and resorts of western Viti Levu are bare and, fearing for their future after the repeal of the 1997 multiracial Constitution, ethnic-Indian sugar cane farmers have refused to harvest this year's cane crop. After recent rains, industry experts say, it may just end up rotting in the fields they lease from indigenous Fijian landowners.

In the Solomon Islands, the economic situation is even more dire and, politically, the instability continues. The prime minister resigned last week and a 12-member committee is now theoretically in power until a meeting of Parliament next week. But the real powerbrokers still seem to be rival ethnic militias, including the Malaita Eagle Force which launched this month's coup and continues to control the capital Honiara.

Experts argue about whether Australia or New Zealand could have done anything to prevent the crisis in Fiji or in the Solomon Islands, where the now deposed prime minister, Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, had been pleading for help for months.

But in Australia's case it's clear that the Pacific has been pushed down the list of priorities, according to Greg Fry, one of the country's leading experts on the Pacific region. Prime Minster John Howard eliminated the post of Minister for Pacific Affairs in 1996, leaving the region in the hands of career diplomats rather than high-level statesmen.

Mr. Howard also seems personally uncomfortable with the region, Mr. Fry says, and has avoided meetings of the South Pacific Forum in recent years. And as Australia continues to try to insert itself in Asian regional politics, Mr. Downer has been busy there.

Japan has taken an increasing interest in the Pacific in recent years and, Fry says, is now the region's largest aid donor outside Papua New Guinea, which Australia continues to pour aid into. China, Korea, and Taiwan have also become players in the South Pacific. But, according to Fry, the Asian countries are unlikely to get involved in resolving the current crises.

China and Taiwan have used the region as a forum for their battles over diplomatic recognition. And Korea and Japan are more interested in the South Pacific's vast fisheries.

Rod Alley, a political scientist at New Zealand's Victoria University, argues the current round of crises will act as a wake-up call for Australia and New Zealand. It's also clear, he notes, that the current reluctance to get involved in Fiji and the Solomon Islands is the result of lessons they've learned in the past.

Australia's angry reaction to the 1987 coups in Fiji only put it at odds with other Pacific countries who supported the indigenous uprising. And in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea both countries learned that they couldn't impose a peace that hadn't been negotiated through often protracted traditional Melanesian ceremonies.

And that brings up another reality, experts say. These states are independent now, less open to paternalistic meddling. In the end "no one [from the outside] can offer solutions to crises in the Pacific," Fry says. "You just have to offer time and space."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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