Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Key's tightrope walking skills to be put to test in Fiji

Prime Minister John Key shakes hands with Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama at Suva Airport. Photo / Claire Trevett
Prime Minister John Key shakes hands with Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama at Suva Airport. Photo / Claire Trevett

Prime Minister John Key's kava-swilling skills proved up to the task for his welcome into Suva last night, but his tightrope walking skills will be more sorely tested in his visit to Fiji.

For his welcome last night - the first time a New Zealand PM has visited Fiji since 2006 - Key was feted like the Prodigal Son. There was even a fatted pig at the sevusevu (traditional welcome) and a banquet in his honour.

It was a state visit with all the trimmings. A motorcade with its own ambulance that bucketed through Suva's winding potholed roads, a banner and billboards with his face beaming from them on the route. He was gifted with a pig, mats and a massive kava root which he admitted Customs might not be happy to see on his return journey.

His talks with the notoriously prickly Fijian leader Frank Bainimarama will prove much trickier to negotiate than the kava ceremony.

In that respect, Mr Key appears to have taken his lead from the Jungle Book - accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

In the lead-up he has soft-peddled on Mr Bainimarama, aware of the Fiji Prime Minister's sensitivity to being "bullied" by a larger partner.

Key has faced calls to tough talk on issues around democracy and things such as bans on foreign journalists but it will be a once-over-lightly in that respect.

There is more at stake for Mr Key. His ultimate goal is to put relations with Fiji back on a pre-coup setting.

That might explain why Key has bordered on blatant flattery when talking about Mr Bainimarama, describing him as "very popular" and "responsive" on issues such as Cyclone Winston and peacekeepers without mentioning a multitude of sins.

For Mr Key, Cyclone Winston is the oil he hopes will smooth his way. The Hercules he is travelling on was last in Fiji to deliver Defence Force personnel and supplies. At the welcome, Mr Key praised the Fiji government's handling of that disaster and said New Zealand stood with them.

New Zealand has so far given $15 million in aid for the recovery from Winston and Mr Key will visit a school Kiwis rebuilt.

Cyclone Winston has its geopolitical uses. Mr Bainimarama has continued to accuse Australia and New Zealand for trying to "bully" the Pacific countries and boycotted the Pacific Islands Forum because the two countries are included.

Mr Key's second goal is to end that impasse. Mr Bainimarama has adopted a "Look North" approach to international relations, building links with countries such as China and Russia over the years the sanctions were in place.

There are hopes the quick response from New Zealand and Australia to Cyclone Winston has served as a reminder to Fiji who its friends are and will prove a circuit breaker. It is disaster diplomacy in action. It is, after all, an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

- NZ Herald

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