South Pacific geopolitics

Print edition : June 10, 2000
P.S. SURYANARAYANA

IT requires no taxing powers of comprehension to understand just why Australia and New Zealand, not India, are the most significant international players who can bring diplomatic and economic pressure to bear on Fiji in order to restore democracy there.

India's moral and diplomatic view is no doubt a factor to be reckoned with by Australia and New Zealand, among other countries. However, the two states Down Under have a far more legitimate and a credible locus standi to respond to the internal affairs of the South Pacific island-republic. In one sense, Fiji falls within the geopolitical ambit of Australia and New Zealand; the two countries have also given shelter to thousands of Indo-Fijians who fled their adopted state following the coup in 1987.

Not surprisingly, therefore, India designated two of its senior diplomats, S.T. Devare and C.P. Ravindranathan, to call on Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and officials in New Zealand for consultations, within the framework of the Commonwealth system, on evolving a "coordinated approach" on the Fiji crisis. Similarly, Norwegian and U.S. officials travelled to New Delhi for crucial talks on the current Sri Lankan crisis ahead of their journey to Colombo. It can, of course, be explained that it was logistically convenient for the Indian diplomats to confer with officials in Australia and New Zealand before travelling to Fiji on a fact-finding tour. But that would not negate the importance of Australia and New Zealand to Fijian affairs.

The Australian leaders, Downer in particular, lambasted Fiji's civilian coup leader George Speight and dubbed him a political "terrorist". But Australia drew a clear distinction between the current situation in Fiji and the crisis in East Timor last year in the wake of a United Nations-sponsored referendum on its political future. Canberra had, on that occasion, taken the lead in mobilising an international force for East Timor (INTERFET) under Article 7 of the U.N. Charter, which provides for some hard military choices.

In Canberra's transparent calculus, the crisis in Fiji lacked the critical mass that would necessitate direct external intervention. As an internal affair of a sovereign state, the Fijian crisis did not, until at least early June, match the turmoil in Indonesia's disputed province of East Timor, for instance.

However, Fiji could not obviously escape the internationalisation of its current problems. If the assertion by the military ruler on June 5 is any guide, Fiji may even slip into a state of 'praetorianism' or a political system with a permissive role in it for the security forces. At another level, Fiji's latest double-coup is not comparable to either its own experiences in the 1980s or the military power-grab in countries like Pakistan and elsewhere.

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