Fiji: the Pacific hub in the Asia Pacific

Nowadays, the concept of the ‘Asia-Pacific’ is on the lips of everybody in officialdom.

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Yet the ‘Pacific’ part of this geographic equation is in danger of falling off the mental maps of many - all too often lost in the vastness and, it must be said, far-smaller economic significance of the region.

" Fiji… has to help lead the way for the rest of the region, while remaining a tourist draw card and attracting new investment."
Mark Skulley, Freelance journalist

In Australia, the offshore focus of business and politics is on Asia and is increasingly drawn to the previously obscure waters of the South China Sea. But for Australia and New Zealand, and even more critically for the Pacific island nations themselves, the question of the Pacific in the Asian century is a huge and complex one.

The Pacific outlook in the 21st century is about sustainability – particularly on climate change - but also about food, population, land and water. Intertwined with this is financial sustainability and how economies of small island nations can support their people while adapting to change.

At the economic centre of this vastness is Fiji, the second-biggest economy in the Pacific Region after Papua New Guinea.

Fiji is an upper-middle income country more developed than its peers and has to help lead the way for the rest of the region, while remaining a tourist draw card and attracting new investment to diversify its own economy and overhaul its farm sector.

In Fiji, poverty rates have fallen but around 30 per cent of the population are still poor and have to be brought into the formal economy. As the Asian Development Bank puts it, Fiji’s opportunity is around “inclusive growth”.


But first, a mental adjustment: Fiji is an important hub in the Pacific. It's not on the edge of nowhere out in the Big Blue.

It's in the middle of somewhere – a fascinating country of 330 or so islands (some 110 of which are occupied) with longstanding and complex ties to other Pacific nations are themselves groups of islands.

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A Pacific writer, the late Tongan-Fijian anthropologist Epeli Hauʻofa, turned the traditional Western maps inside out by arguing the "continental men, Europeans and Americans, drew imaginary lines across the sea, making the colonial boundaries that, for the first time, confined ocean peoples to tiny spaces".


“The first term 'Pacific Islands', is the prevailing one used everywhere; it connotes small areas of land surfaces sitting atop submerged reefs or seamounts.

Hardly any anglophone economist, consultancy expert, government planner or development banker in the region uses the term 'Oceania', perhaps because it sounds grand and somewhat romantic, and may connote something so vast it would compel them to a drastic review of their perspectives and policies. The French and other Europeans use the term 'Oceania' to an extent that English speakers ... have not.

'Oceania' connotes a sea of islands with their inhabitants. The world of our ancestors was a large sea full of places to explore, to make their homes in, to breed generations of seafarers like themselves … Theirs was a large world in which peoples and cultures moved and mingled unhindered by boundaries of the kind erected much later by imperial powers.

… The world of Oceania may no longer include the heavens and the underworld; but it certainly encompasses the great cities of Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada. And it is within this expanded world that the extent of the people's resources must be measured…”

Epeli Hauʻofa

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It's true the South African-born police chief quit last year, citing military interference, and the Prime Minister has recently conceded there is a problem with police brutality.

Additionally, the government keeps a close check on trade unions and the media (although a visa ban on three international journalists has recently been lifted).


But the government has made reforms little known outside of Fiji. It has made school education free – in what the PM sees as his signature reform – equalised land-leasage payments to native (iTaukei) Fijians that used to mostly go to the chiefs and lowered the voting age to 18 years.

The new constitution has been criticised but it abolished race-based electoral rolls and seat quotas, the unelected upper house and the role of the hereditary Great Council of Chiefs.

Bainimarama stood down from the military he led to power in the bloodless 2006 coup and easily won elections in 2014 which passed international scrutiny.

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Photo: Petersen Fotography


Fiji is playing an increasing role on the international stage.  In a first for the Pacific, a Fijian diplomat (Peter Thomson) is now chairing the UN General Assembly.

It has strong ties to India and is a central part of China's plan for a "maritime Silk Road" in the Pacific.

Most significantly, Fiji has been a global leader for firm climate change targets and on financial inclusion – bringing more people into the formal economy. Fiji will be president of the next global UN climate conference (COP23) which will be held in Germany in 2017.

The Prime Minister has formally invited American president-elect Donald Trump to see the effects of climate change first hand.

Within the region, Australia and New Zealand are seen as the big brothers in the neighbourhood, often helpful but sometimes overbearing. The Aussies are perhaps seen as being brash Americans while the Kiwis are more akin to the more sedate Canadians.

Both Australia and New Zealand pushed for sanctions against Fiji after the 2006 coup, which led to the peculiar situation of the headquarters of the Pacific Islands Forum being in Suva but Fiji being excluded from its meetings.

Fiji is now back in the forum fold and Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, argued successfully for a lifting of Australian sanctions in 2014.

Prime Minister Bainimarama, 62, recently took over the foreign affairs portfolio, setting up an intriguing interplay with Australia and New Zealand over the next few years.

His forty-something Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, is also the Minister for Justice, Finance, Public Enterprises and the Public Service, and periodically fills in as acting PM.


In a little-reported speech in October at Liverpool in western Sydney, Bainimarama said Fiji was moving beyond the "lost years" of arguing who "deserved more" based on ethnic or religious background or place of origin.

"With our new-found unity and an education revolution that is opening up paths of learning for even the most disadvantaged Fijian, we have embarked on an ambitious program," he said.

"That is to steadily transform ourselves from a developing country into a modern nation state."

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"We intend to make the Fijian people respected the world over, for the quality of the goods and services they produce and their service to the international community. Brand Fiji and its clever, hardworking people a byword for excellence and a beacon – like Australia - to our smaller neighbours in the region and every developing country in the world."

Bainimarama conceded this was ambitious but argued that Fiji was in an unprecedented seventh straight years of economic growth, again despite the ravages of Winston.

The PM said Fiji wanted a "full and equal partnership" with Australia and New Zealand and was keen to attract new investment with investment incentives and low corporate and personal taxes.


Bainamarama proposed a new "map", one with Fiji in the centre: "We are the Hub of the Pacific, with unrivalled connectivity to other markets and state of the art telecommunications. And we are investing heavily in new infrastructure, including new roads, airports and dramatically more efficient ports," he said.

"More importantly, we have an educated, English speaking workforce gaining more and more skills all the time. Through our three universities and a network of technical colleges that are giving Fiji a stronger skills base that at any time in its history."

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It was a different type of speech about Fiji. Outsiders might be surprised it came from Frank Bainimarama, who started out in the Fijian navy as an able seaman and worked his way up to Commodore and then commander of the armed forces.

But maybe the continental types should think about Fiji and the Pacific in a different way, as Oceania, a sea of islands. And maybe Australia is not girt by sea, as the song says. Maybe we are connected by it.

Mark Skulley is one of Australia’s most-respected business journalists, a veteran of more than two decades at Fairfax Media including The Australian Financial Review.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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