Over the next few months, The Diplomat will be running a series of interviews with Washington DC-based ambassadors on defence, diplomacy, and trade in the Asia-Pacific region. In the second of these interviews, conducted by Washington correspondent Eddie Walsh, Ambassador Winston Thompson of the Republic of Fiji discusses the opportunities and challenges facing his government following the 2006 military coup.
The CIA World Factbook states: ‘Commodore Bainimarama has neutralized his opponents, crippled Fiji's democratic institutions, and refused to hold elections.’ As the country's representative to the United States, how do you respond to this position by the US government?
We still consider ourselves a democratically-based country. The reason that we have gone off-track for the moment is because the democratic system that we had in place was not in fact fulfilling the long-term interests of Fiji. Various acts were undertaken by the previous government that were causing polarization within the community. Ethno-nationalistic policies were being followed which the military said shouldn’t be pursued. But the democratic government insisted on carrying on with it, which is why it was removed.
Since it has been in place, the objective of the current government has been to remove ethnic considerations out of the body politic. They will appoint a committee to review the Constitution and carry through this non-racial aspect. They have also embarked upon establishing a developmental programme within Fiji that’s addressing those areas which haven’t been well serviced in the past, such as putting in roads, bridges, and shipping. They’ve been concentrating on that and making development more uniform across the country, and reforming the government system to remove elements of patronage. Finally, there’s the issue of corruption, which the military felt was getting out of hand. One of the reasons given for staging the coup was to get rid of corruption. If you look back on the record, the current government very quickly adopted and ratified the UN Convention Against Corruption and set up the Fiji Independence Commission Against Corruption that has gone into addressing the corruption issue in a vigorous way.
Because the population is made up of two big components, ethnic Fijians and ethnic Indians, you need policies in the government system that bring them to a common position, which the government that was overthrown wasn’t doing. It was processing legislation that would in fact give over the seas and reefs as outright ownership to the land owners – 90 percent of whom are ethnically Fijian. That wasn’t seen as unifying. They were also processing legislation which would have given amnesty to those that had staged the coup in 2000, including releasing those who were imprisoned and being prosecuted. The military said that wasn’t good for the country.
Do you believe that the preconditions existed for democratic governance at the time of Fijian independence? Or do you think that the history of the coups illustrates that those preconditions didn’t exist, or that they must be restored prior to the restoration of democracy?
Those preconditions clearly existed because we were a multiracial society. I think it was hoped that the way the 1970 constitution was framed would provide sufficient time for the communities to develop a more common identity and get on better. In the fullness of time, they then could amend the constitution to better reflect the situation. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. We had the first coup in 1987, and it dislocated the whole dialogue between the two main races. This was being exacerbated by the government, which was overthrown in 2006. Rather than finding ways to bring the communities together, they were driving them apart. This gave rise to the unhappiness of the military over what was happening, which is ironic given that the majority of the military are ethnic Fijians.
Do you therefore perceive the military as the safeguard for stable government in an otherwise cleaved society?
They certainly perceive themselves in that way. Perhaps the circumstances that we are in, they are needed to maintain a national stability.
Despite significant emigration, Indians still represent almost 40percent of the population. From your perspective, are tensions between the Indian and Melanesian population in Fiji dissipating under the current government? What is the current government doing to address such tensions?
I think before the coup, it’s true to say that the Indians were very unhappy and migrating in very large numbers. Since then, they are happy that the conditions in Fiji aren’t against them and they are more prepared to stay and contribute. Also, those that migrated are being encouraged to return. They can also vote in the upcoming election abroad, and the government has moved to allow for dual citizenship for the migrants.
When do you foresee free and fair elections returning to Fiji? Will the Constitution be reinstated at that time?
The government has set out a very clear timetable for the return to elections. In 2013, the constitutional review will take place. By 2014, you’ll have the basis for the elections to take place under a non-racial constitution. Beginning next year, there will be electronic voter registration. This will put in place the proper process to proceed. International monitoring of the elections hasn’t been discussed, but I am sure that will be part of it.
In its short history as an independent country, Fiji has experienced more than its fair share of coups. Why do you think such political turmoil has been an endemic feature of the political system in Fiji?
Since 1987, we’ve had a coup culture. But once we have a constitutional framework that will give a more balanced and universal representation for people in the political system, it will be overcome. Many countries have gone through these cycles, so there’s no reason we can’t get out of it.
What has been the diplomatic impact of the coup and your country's suspension from participation in the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and Commonwealth of Nations?
As far as we’re concerned, we have a timetable for elections and they have delivered on the path they have promised. Unfortunately, Australia and New Zealand in particular have said that they don’t believe that the elections will be held in 2014. If you take that approach, it’s very difficult. They refuse to acknowledge that steps are already underway for the elections, development is going on, and people are very happy with the progress. Fiji is also still a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), which is in terms of representation of the Pacific Islands Forum 90 percent of the population, and serves as its chairman. The MSG met before the PIF and its leaders pledged support for Fiji. In fact, they said that they’d move to have Fiji reinstated at the PIF meeting, but only the President of Kiribati was brave enough to come out and say that.
Do you see any opportunity for the strengthening of the multilateral relations between the small island nations of the South Pacific in the future? Could a new security architecture emerge?
There has always been a strong feeling of the South Pacific Islands peoples being together. There was more intercourse between the islands before the European colonization than after. There’s an identity as a South Pacific people. That feeling has strengthened in the last 10 years. Since Fiji was excluded from the PIF, there has been established in the United Nations the Pacific Small Island Developing States. They meet on a regular basis and have more to do with what goes on in the UN than the PIF, which hardly gets a look in anymore. Australia isn’t a South Pacific island – they are a donor country and a post-colonial influence. But, in terms of self-identity, they don’t view Australia and New Zealand as part of the common identity.
As the United States reasserts itself in the Pacific region, how has it affected progress for Fiji and have you seen the relationship between the US and Fiji improve?
Until recently, the US has looked to Australia and New Zealand to call the shots with respect to the relationship with Fiji. But recently, the relationship has improved. They must have realized that after five years of this sort of stand from Australia and New Zealand, it hasn’t made any difference, and there must be a different approach if you want to have any impact or influence on what goes on in Fiji. The other thing is that many others have come to cooperate with Fiji. We have more countries in a friendly relationship with Fiji than ever before.
What is Fiji's perception of US hegemony in Asia-Pacific? Will the US continue to serve as an unrivalled security guarantor, and do you see its military dominance enduring for at least the next 30-40 years?
Given the recent developments in geopolitics and global economic development, that isn’t as clear as it used to be. There’s going to be more geo-political competition. Our area could be faced with a lot more issues than we have faced in the past.
Are small island nations in the region hedging against US hegemony by looking to other powers?
That’s already happening in the case of Fiji because we were ostracized by our traditional allies and we have had to look elsewhere. That is a fact of life.
The increased diplomatic assertiveness of China in the South Pacific has garnered the attention of many experts and diplomats. Many believe this was the trigger for the large American delegation being sent to the Pacific Islands Forum this year. What do you think China's motivation is for engagement in the Pacific, and do you see China trying to promote long-term peace and stability in the Pacific?
China has been in Fiji for a long time. They were one of the first to come in when we achieved independence. This isn’t something new. I don’t know why people are interpreting this as something suddenly happening. They have been in the region for 40 years as a development partner. I think their intentions are development oriented. They want to benefit from trade and development possibilities from the economic zone – the exploitation of the seas around us and the mineral resources on land. Their requirements for these are growing all the time. Taiwan also is in Fiji, not in a diplomatic capacity but as a trade partner.
When Kurt Campbell from the US State Department spoke at CSIS a few weeks ago, he was critical of the type of foreign aid that China was providing in the South Pacific and voiced his government's willingness to work with China to ensure that its aid better met the long-term needs of the region. Do you agree with his assessment? What can China and other foreign countries do better with respect to foreign aid in the South Pacific?
I don’t think that is true at all. The aid that China has been giving for infrastructure development in Fiji has been one of the central requirements for the development of the country. One of the pre-requisites of development in the remote areas is to put in roads, and that’s what they have done. Just because it is an area that other countries haven’t looked at, why should they criticize it as not contributing to long-term development? Trade access is something that should be facilitated by all countries. There should be some concessions provided for small countries to gain access to markets. We find the US has strict quality standards for food imports that it’s very difficult for countries such as ours to meet. It’s something we have to work on and a place where countries with greater capabilities could help.
How are Fiji's bilateral relations with Australia and New Zealand today? Where are there opportunities for improvement or concern in the relationship?
The relationship isn’t very good at the moment because of the stand that they take. Fortunately, they haven’t disrupted the trade between the two countries. Business relationships are continuing with their counterparts. From that point of view, it’s good. We depend a lot on them for markets for tourism. Fortunately, over the last five years, the number of visitors from Australia and New Zealand have continued to rise. They’ve seen nothing to dissuade them from coming from the domestic situation. Things could have been much better though if they hadn’t taken this very difficult stand.
As ASEAN deepens ties, there is the consideration that it also should broaden. This could be achieved through an extension of relationships to South Pacific countries such as Fiji. Do you see an interest in ASEAN playing a more concrete role in your economic development? What about India?
We would hope ASEAN will play a more concrete role. We are moving to get observer status with the ASEAN countries so they can play a more tangible role. As countries develop, they want to extend their influence to potential markets and areas that could be involved in an economic relationship with them. We are part of their geographic area. With respect to India, economic relations are good. India is part of the Commonwealth stand on Fiji, so military cooperation isn’t something that they are exploring. I think that India’s interests moving forward, though, means that they’ll want to have a greater presence. We want to develop relations with a wide array of countries. In the past, we’ve been influenced to a large extent by Western powers and restricted in our relations by the Commonwealth. What we are realizing is that the world is opening up and we want to take advantage of it by looking more widely than in the past to take advantage of any opportunities that there might be to promote our own interests. This should have happened either way, but being pushed out of the Commonwealth forced us to do this more seriously than we would have otherwise.
Fiji is fortunate not to be party to any major international disputes. Aside from governance, what then are the major traditional and non-traditional security issues facing Fijians today?
We don’t have any serious security issues. We have no arguments with anybody that could lead to war. Since 1978, we’ve contributed troops to UN peace keeping operations in theatres around the world. We are also a member of the South Pacific Tuna Treaty. That’s a vulnerable resource, and there has to be careful management of it. But I think there’s enough interest in international conventions that manage this on a diplomatic basis so that it isn’t a military issue.
Many countries in the Asia-Pacific are undergoing serious military modernization. Fiji is seriously limited in its capacity to modernize – both from a budget and human resources standpoint. In your opinion, does Fiji need to pursue more aggressive military modernization in the years ahead, or will you stay the course?
Generally, we don’t see ourselves being faced with any serious security threats that require major modernization of our military capabilities. We would need to modernize our military capabilities though to just do the job we currently are doing in peace keeping operations on a proper basis, because military equipment is evolving all the time and we need to keep up with the technology.
At the time of the coup, some analysts worried that domestic instability could undermine Fiji’s role as the transport hub of the South Pacific. Do you see any long-term effect of the coup on Fiji’s role as a hub in the region?
Fiji has played a central role for a couple of hundred years because of its geographic position. The undersea cables, shipping lines, airline routes make it a central location. We have a very well developed infrastructure that can handle an entrepôt function. If we were going to have serious political instability, it could affect this, but I don’t see that happening. I don’t see other countries hedging against us playing this role either.
Tourism remains a driver of economic growth. Given the volatility in the international markets (especially energy), are you concerned that Fiji must urgently diversify its sources of foreign exchange, and what is the government doing to promote foreign investment?
The government is trying to promote diversification as much as possible. It’s encouraging the agriculture and resource sectors. We have bauxite, gold, and manganese in our mines. We have resources within our exclusive economic zone (EEZ), including manganese nodules. Tourism is moving on its own – it’s experiencing a very satisfactory increase.
It has been reported that Fiji would push for the South Pacific Stock Exchange emerging as a regional exchange. Why hasn’t this occurred, and do you see renewed interest in pushing this ahead?
It’s still moving in the direction of a regional stock exchange. We have Fiji TV listed on the stock exchange, which has holdings in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Bank South Pacific South Pacific of PNG has bought one of the banks in Fiji and is moving to be listed on the South Pacific Stock Exchange. So, I think that with time it will be able to gradually interest others.
Fiji participated in the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. How important is cultural diplomacy to advancing your countries national interests abroad? What countries are the main focus of such outreach?
We aren’t doing too much in public diplomacy. We do have regular attendance at such expos, a military band that travels, a festival of arts held in the South Pacific, and shows like Pacific Night in Washington, DC and elsewhere . However, I don’t know if there’s a systematic plan to exploit this area on the world stage. It is just not being thought of – we don’t have the resources to do much about it. It has nothing to do with our present government status. I think it’s increasingly realized that we need to get a brand though. The fact that Fiji Water is such a recognizable brand matters. We now are launching Fiji Pure Mahogany as a brand. The government is increasingly realizing it needs a systematic approach to building a brand. The government is going to have to take the initiative and spearhead building a brand. It will need to put resources into it and get input from agencies in other countries.
For a small country, Fiji nonetheless is a major force in international rugby union. Unfortunately, the country had a poor showing at this year's World Cup. What impact will this have on the local economy and what is Fiji doing to ensure that the team is more competitive in the future?
Our sevens team is a better brand for our country than the 15-man competition, and we have won the World Cup twice with the sevens. If we had done well in this World Cup, it would have had an impact. But almost the entire team that played at the World Cup plays their professional rugby full-time overseas. The fact that they are all playing overseas and they have good reputations in the places they play, especially Europe, Australia, and New Zealand – that has an economic impact. So, more Fijian players are being encouraged to go play abroad. There’s a lot of economic benefit that comes from the recognition of Fijians’ ability to play rugby.