Steven Ratuva: Quiet diplomacy needed to bring Fiji back into the fold

Fiji and New Zealand are in the process of restoring diplomatic relations which started to break down after the military coup in 2006. Photo / Alan Gibson
Fiji and New Zealand are in the process of restoring diplomatic relations which started to break down after the military coup in 2006. Photo / Alan Gibson

After New Zealand offered an olive branch to Fiji to ease diplomatic tension between the two countries, Fiji responded in two unexpected ways.

Firstly, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, while welcoming the move, was also quoted by Fiji media as saying that he was "confused" with New Zealand's stance in maintaining travel sanctions.

Secondly, Fiji appointed a military officer, Lieutenant Colonel Neumi Leweni, to fill in the counsellor's position at the Fiji High Commission in Wellington, at a time when there was a ban on visit to New Zealand by Fiji military officers.

This was the latest development in the diplomatic "cold war" between the two countries since the Fiji military coup in 2006 after which New Zealand imposed "smart sanctions," which included prohibition of visits to New Zealand by Fijian military personnel. Fiji expelled three New Zealand high commissioners within three years and New Zealand retaliated in similar manner.

Lieutenant Colonel Leweni's appointment has put New Zealand in a very difficult situation. If it accepts the appointment, it would appear to be undermining its own travel sanction for military officers and would be seen to be giving in to Fiji's political whim. At the same time Fiji would feel triumphant in simultaneously scoring two scoops - restoring diplomatic links with New Zealand and out-manoeuvring the smart sanctions.

Fiji's stance would be seen by some as conspiratorially political and lacking good faith and diplomatic zeal. The New Zealand Government would no doubt be frustrated as it would feel that it is being duped into a difficult corner where it would be forced to choose between two unpalatable options.

If New Zealand refuses Fiji's proposal the initiative for diplomatic restoration between the two countries may collapse prematurely and both countries and even the Pacific region would be losers. This would be unfortunate given the great efforts by the foreign ministers of the two countries who have been meeting to put the restoration process in place.

The details of the agreement and related conditions between the two foreign ministers are not very clear but I suspect that the appointment of a Fijian military officer for diplomatic posting to Wellington was probably not part of it.

Given that both countries are in the process of restoring diplomatic relations, there should be more restraint, sensitivity and innovative diplomacy by both sides. They should use silent diplomacy to arrive at a consensus about their potential appointees. For instance, Fiji shouldn't have rushed into announcing its appointee but rather engaged further in silent diplomacy with New Zealand to find out if it was acceptable.

By announcing the name of a military officer in the first place, Fiji was in danger of derailing the sensitive process in a potentially irreversible way, at least for the foreseeable future.

Winning political points by putting New Zealand on the defensive does not help Fiji's case at all. On the contrary, it could prolong the agony of isolation and unnecessary continuing conflict with an important neighbour. On the other hand, if New Zealand responds negatively to Fiji's appointment, the situation could escalate into a new round of political showdowns with both countries blaming each other of responsibility for the failed diplomatic initiative.

Outright rejection of Fiji's proposal may only make matters irretrievably worse and a new approach may be needed at this point in time.

The future of the Fiji-NZ diplomatic relations now rests with New Zealand's response. The response should be innovative and sensitive enough to salvage a diplomatic process which now has the potential to fail.

Another round of diplomacy, this time around, using silent diplomacy should be pursued in earnest to discuss Fiji's proposal. They should arrive at a consensus before any announcement is made.

Premature publicity and manipulation of publicity to achieve psychological upper-hand and political advantage could be counter-productive to diplomatic success.

It should be based on a "win-win" goodwill and reciprocal spirit, not on the "attack and counter-attack" strategy the two countries have been deploying since 2006. They should put all their cards on the table and make themselves transparent to each other as a precondition for continuing dialogue.

The first step should be restoration of full diplomatic relations. The second step should then be discussion of the difficult issues like smart sanctions.

The two issues should not be mixed up. The two governments owe it to the ordinary citizens of the two countries and to good relations and stability in the Pacific region generally.

Dr Steven Ratuva is a political sociologist at Auckland University and president of the Pacific Islands Political Studies Association.

- NZ Herald

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