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2nd International Defence and Security Dialogue
Australia’s Immediate Neighbourhood:
The Strategic Outlook and its Defence and Security Implications

 
Press Coverage

  Australian Broadcasting Corporation - 26 February 2013

There have been calls today for Australia to refocus its defence and security attention on our closest neighbours in Melanesia.

Australia called on to refocus security in its neighbourhood (Credit: ABC)

With Australia's commitment in Afghanistan coming to an end and more focus on strategic developments in Asia, the Australian government is in the process of developing a new Defence White Paper.

In the lead up to the white paper the New South Wales chapter of the Royal United Services Institute has been holding its second International Defence and security dialogue in Sydney.

Jemima Garrett was there for Pacific Beat.

Presenter: Jemima Garrett

Speakers: Professor Richard Herr from the University of Fiji, Fiji's Former Prime Minister and first coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka, Jenny Hayward Jones, director of the Myer Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institue

GARRETT: In the 2009 White Paper Melanesia came in as Australia's number two priority among a very large number of priorities, only pipped by the defence of our own shores. But with so much focus on places like Iraq and Afghanistan, someone looking in from the outside certainly would have been hard pressed to discern that Melanesia was supposed to be number two. And it's for that reason that the Royal United Services Institute decided to make Melanesia the main topic of this second dialogue on security before the finalisation of the White Paper.

HILL: Now there have been some pretty high level speakers there today. Who were they and what did they have to say?

GARRETT: Yeah there were indeed some high level speakers and really what they were saying I think there's a broad consensus on this idea that more attention is needed on Melanesia. Professor Richard Herr, the honorary director of the Centre for International and Regional Affairs at the University of Fiji, said despite the strong history Australia has in the region, it's dropped the ball in recent years. And he spelt this out very clearly in his keynote address:

HERR: Australia has to a real extent I think lost the plot with regard to regional security. Part of the problem for this is that the commonness in our approach has become less common, that mutual perceptions are not shared mutually, and that the belief in the share of infinities of interest has frayed noticeably in recent years. The regional arrangements have been a factor in Australian strategic thinking regarding the islands for 70 years, yet they're under stress today. And my principle argument to you is that unless Australia embraces a two-region approach to the Pacific Islands, there will be some difficulty meeting Australia's own strategic interest and indeed, those of the Pacific Islands. Australia may well become soon simply another extra regional player in the affairs of the Pacific Islands region. The Pacific Plan I believe has lost its way, sub-regional arrangements like the Melanesian Spearhead Group are challenging the Forum for pre-eminence. And regional associations that exclude Australia have grown in prominence and worryingly I believe from the point of view of Australia, in support in the islands.

HILL: That was Professor Richard Herr from the University of Fiji. Jemima if I can just pick up on something he said, he was referring there to a two-region approach to the Pacific. What did he mean by that?

GARRETT: Well essentially the thinking is that Melanesia is so much bigger and such a young population, internal security issues all affect Melanesian, that the Pacific region needs to be seen as Melanesia and then the whole of the Pacific as two separate regions really. Professor Herr was in particular calling for more attention to be given by Australia to the Melanesian Spearhead Group. I think overall he's probably on the negative end of the spectrum, but there certainly is a widespread feeling that Australia does need to lift its game and find a more inclusive security architecture, one that serves the Pacific as well as being perceived to only serve the western alliance.

HILL: Well you said that there was a pretty strong consensus that yes Australia had to pay more attention to Melanesia. Obviously there'd be differences of opinion in exactly what kind of attention Australia should pay to Melanesia. Was there much reaction to what Professor Herr said? Was there much debate and discussion about different approaches to Melanesia?

GARRETT: Well indeed and in fact the most contentious issue was not surprisingly Fiji and Australia's approach to Fiji. Fiji sits at the crossroads of Melanesia and Polynesia, it's the economic hub of the region, and Australia has been the leading force in seeing Fiji suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum, and all the activities that go with that. And that's led Fiji to move to make friends elsewhere. It's upped its involvement with the Melanesian Spearhead Group, making that a more important organisation. It's setup separate talks with Pacific Island nations that exclude Australia, and it's looked at China for aid funding. Fiji's former prime minister and first coup leader, Major General Sitiveni Rabuka talked a lot about the value of Australia to Fiji and the region, but he agreed with Richard Herr that the sanctions that Australia has placed on Fiji should go. And he had a pretty stark warning for Canberra:

RABUKA: Australia must realise that the longer the isolation the more difficult the restoration. And while you have been shielding yourselves behind the wall of political correctness, the new players in the Pacific have been using the time settling in, and the Pacific, particularly Fiji, is beginning to settle down to the new friends. If you can ever regain your position in Fiji do not ever lose it again.

HILL: Fiji's former prime minister and first coup leader General Sitiveni Rabuka. Jemima the growing influence of China is always a big influence when discussing security, not just in the Pacific, but around the world. What kind of a discussion was there on the influence of China?

GARRETT: Well certainly there is an awareness that the rise of China is changing the landscape in the Pacific. But I think there can be overblown fears here, and certainly that was the tenure of the debate today. The main problem identified was illegal Chinese immigration and the potential that has to create situations of civil unrest because of perceptions that the immigrants are taking jobs, involved in criminal activity or taking business opportunities.

HILL: We've actually already seen some examples of that in the Pacific in Tonga, in PNG and Solomon Islands haven't we?

GARRETT: Indeed we have and in fact internal security was identified as probably one of the biggest issues for both Australia and the region. Just on the China issue, Jenny Hayward Jones from the Lowy Institute had some interesting figures which reveal that China spends around 400-million dollars a year on aid in the region, now that's a fair bit more than was previously thought. But she also made the point that as China's policy in the region is run by its commerce department, not the department of foreign affairs. It's really a commercial rather than a defence driven approach.

HAYWARD JONES: I think we've seen China's influence rise partly through their aid program. A decade ago it was in competition with Taiwan in a game of cheque book diplomacy. But since that time we've seen a real shift to greater Chinese investment from a variety of sources. We're seeing much greater interest in aid, a huge rise in Chinese trade with the region, and with Papua New Guinea, Chinese trade has increased ten-fold over the last decade. So we're seeing Chinese influence sort of grow from a variety of sources, I don't think it's essentially directed from Beijing, and I don't think the Communist Party of China has a strategic role in unseating the west in the Pacific. But I think this growth has occurred almost by accident.

GARRETT: Australia has a White Paper on defence coming up. Your policy recommendations for that paper are really non-security recommendations, things like more effort on business coordination. Why are they non-security recommendations?

HAYWARD JONES: Basically I think that diplomacy should be about preventing security challenges from becoming crises. So I think in order to prepare for that you need to look at the whole suite of tools you have available. And if you look at Australia's relations with major countries in the world; with the United States, with the United Kingdom for example, even with China, the depth of our relationship is great and it goes far beyond government. And I think if we make more of an effort to encourage the non-government parts of our relationship with business-to-business, the famous people-to-people, which should really be about looking at the young people in these countries and young people are forming the majority of most Melanesian countries. We should be actively seeking out ties with them, we should be looking at greater business-to-business links and taking advantage of those, looking at enhancing our political relationships. And I don't mean by that government-to-government, but MPs to MPs, forming more enduring relationships that mean that when a crisis looks like it's emerging, we've got many more faces to draw on, to seek to advise, to advertise that we're here to help, and basically stop the crisis emerging as we've seen happen in the Pacific in the past.

HILL: Jenny Hayward Jones, director of the Myer Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institute, she was speaking with Jemima Garrett at the International Defence and Security Dialogue taking place in Sydney.


Australia is being warned that the longer it isolates Fiji, the more difficult it will be to restore relations.

Former coup leader Rabuka warns against ongoing isolation of Fiji (Credit: ABC)

In a speech delivered at an international defence and security dialogue in Sydney tomorrow Fiji's former Prime Minister Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka says, while Australia has been shielding itself behind a post-coup wall of correctness, other powers such as China have been settling in to new relationships with his strategically important nation.

Australia imposed sanctions on Fiji in 2006 and has vowed to keep them in place until democracy is restored.

Correspondent: Jemima Garrett

Speaker: Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka, former Prime minister of Fiji and leader of the 1987 coups

RABUKA: The relationship, the diplomatic relationship between Australia and Fiji has never been as bad as it is. It is important to immediately restore relationships because of the undue attention and influence that we are now getting from Asian countries. On the other hand they may be the natural partners we should have had all the time because we are Pacific, Oceania, Asia-Pacific neighbours. However, we cannot change history, the way it has gone in the past and we have a lot of Chinese influence in the Pacific now.

GARRETT: You warn that Fiji's easy entry for Asian citizens has made Fiji a target for people wishing to gain access to other countries in the region and you also talk about the growing influence of China. Commentators are divided on how far Fiji's new relationship with China has gone what are you seeing on the ground?

RABUKA: What we are seeing on the ground is that a lot of Chinese influence has come in. Road engineers, they are mining bauxite in Vanuatu Levu, they have started building bridges. Interestingly, though, the post-cyclone efforts did not come from them. They waited for the tenders to be given out for the rehabilitation work and they came in. The assistance came from our former traditional partners.

GARRETT: Just how much of a game-changer is Fiji's new relationship with China?

RABUKA: It is big. We will probably get the same scale of assistance we were getting from Australia and New Zealand and American, but it is also potentially bigger in that it is a bigger market. Everything we are selling to the European Union and our neighbours, we can sell to China. Maybe we will get the same things in return, different brand.

GARRETT: Fiji is also pursuing relationships with other countries. They have upped their involvement with the Melanesian Spearhead group, they've set up new meetings with Pacific Island countries that don't include Australia and New Zealand. Fiji has also joined the non-aligned movement and it is Chair, this year, of the Group of 77. To what extent is this burst of diplomatic activity been driven by Australia's sanctions on Fiji?

RABUKA: I think the full brunt of the blame should be put on Australia. However, how much benefit Fiji will get from all these things is debateable, in fact doubtful. I don't think we are gaining anything by doing all the things we are now doing.

GARRETT: Do you think these new relationships have the potential to permanently diminish Australia's relations with Fiji, and even beyond that into the Pacific?

RABUKA: It has a lot of potential. As I said all the things we are now selling to Australia we can sell to other, to china and everything we are buying from Australia we can buy from china or from Asia, Asian countries.

GARRETT: Fiji has tried to set up these new institutions which don't include Australia. Do you think they will be ongoing?

RABUKA: I think they would be ongoing but what value really is in it, not only for Fiji but for the other partners, the co-operative partners. They will have good relationships with Australia. They do not need to shut the door on Australia and the Australian doors will still be open to them so after some time they will normalise and Fiji will be isolated.

GARRETT: You say it is very important that Australia restore relations in the post-2014 era but it is not looking as if democracy will be restored. The interim Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, has promised elections but he has brought in a draconian political party decree and he has also rejected the recommendations of the widely-respected Yash Ghai Constitutional Commission. What prospects do you see for Fiji to have truly open and democratic elections in 2014?

RABUKA: It all depends on what people see democracy as. For a long time Indonesia had a democratic government and they still evolving their electoral system. So democracy a la Australian politics, if that is what you are looking for in Fiji it will be a long time coming. But as we did in the post-1987 election, we will just have to start, make a start, and the constitution that will come out of this constituent assembly may not be as widely acclaimed, or even accepted at all, by the people but it will be something like the 1990 constitution that we had to, we were forced, or the people of Fiji were forced to accept to get us back into the road back to democracy acceptable to Fiji.

GARRETT: Australia's sanctions are intended to help Fiji restore democracy. Are you saying those sanctions should be lifted democracy or not?

RABUKA: I think they should be lifted, democracy or not, because Australia trades and has relationships with some doubtful democracies around the world so I do not think that Fiji, small Fiji, we are just a small player in international affairs and we need to take whatever crumbs we can get and move on. Pride can get you going down very, very quickly. And at the moment our national morale is very low, our sporting teams don't do as well as they used to and people are just crying out. We just want stability and that stability can be under pure democracy or impure democracy.

  Radio New Zealand International - 26 February 2013

A former Fiji prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, has told a Sydney conference that Australia will lose its political and strategic influence in Fiji if it doesn’t restore diplomatic relations as soon as possible.

Mr Rabuka says Asian powers, such as China, are building new relationships with Fiji while Australia hid behind a wall of political correctness.

He says while the past 25 years of the Australia-Fiji relationship has been strained and dominated by isolationism and a diplomatic feud, Australia must realise that the longer the isolation, the more difficult the restoration.

Links have been strained since the 2006 military coup in Fiji, after which Australia imposed travel sanctions.

Professor Richard Herr, from the Centre for International and Regional Affairs at the University of Fiji, has told the conference that Australia has lost the plot about regional security.

  National Nine News - Australia - 26 February 2013

Major General Sitiveni Rabuka told a meeting in Sydney that Asian powers, such as China, were building new relationships with Fiji while Australia hid "behind a wall of political correctness".

Another speaker at the 2nd International Defence and Security Dialogue on Tuesday said Australia had "lost the plot" in regard to security in the region.

General Rabuka, who led a military coup in 1987, said it was important to quickly restore relationships because of the attention and influence Fiji was getting from Asia.

"While the past 25 years of the Australia-Fiji relationship has been strained and dominated by isolationism and a diplomatic feud, Australia must realise that the longer the isolation, the more difficult the restoration," he told the forum on Tuesday.

"After Fiji normalises its own national political situation, Fiji will expect the quick restoration of bilateral relationship with Australia".

Australia-Fiji relations have been strained since Fiji's government was overthrown in 2006 by a military coup staged by Commodore Frank Bainimarama, now Fiji's prime minister.

Australia has also imposed financial and travel sanctions on Fiji until democracy is restored.

But Fiji has been pursuing relationships with other countries and has upped its involvement with the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), which includes Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, the forum was told.

Professor Richard Herr, from the Centre for International and Regional Affairs at the University of Fiji, said Australia had "lost the plot" about regional security.

He said Australia had become lax in its involvement with the MSG and risked "becoming an outsider looking in" when it came to Pacific island relations.

  Island Business - 27 February 2013

Australia may lose Fiji influence: Rabuka

SYDNEY, Australia (AAP) - Australia will lose its political and strategic influence in Fiji if it doesn't restore good relations as soon as possible, the Pacific nation's former prime minister says.

Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka told a meeting in Sydney that Asian powers, such as China, were building new relationships with Fiji while Australia hid “behind a wall of political correctness”.

Another speaker at the 2nd International Defence and Security Dialogue on Tuesday said Australia had “lost the plot” in regard to security in the region.

Major-General Rabuka, who led a military coup in 1987, said it was important to quickly restore relationships because of the attention and influence Fiji was getting from Asia.

"While the past 25 years of the Australia-Fiji relationship has been strained and dominated by isolationism and a diplomatic feud, Australia must realise that the longer the isolation, the more difficult the restoration,” he told the forum on Tuesday.

"After Fiji normalises its own national political situation, Fiji will expect the quick restoration of bilateral relationship with Australia”.

Australia-Fiji relations have been strained since Fiji's government was overthrown in 2006 by a military coup staged by Commodore Frank Bainimarama, now Fiji's prime minister.

Australia has also imposed financial and travel sanctions on Fiji until democracy is restored.

But Fiji has been pursuing relationships with other countries and has upped its involvement with the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), which includes Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, the forum was told.

Professor Richard Herr, from the Centre for International and Regional Affairs at the University of Fiji, said Australia had "lost the plot" about regional security.

He said Australia had become lax in its involvement with the MSG and risked "becoming an outsider looking in" when it came to Pacific island relations.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced in July last year that Australia would restore diplomatic relations with Fiji. In December, career diplomat Margaret Twomey was appointed High Commissioner to Fiji and is due to start the posting within weeks.


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