The Government unveiled its new “Sporting Diplomacy” programme for the Pacific yesterday and quite possibly not a moment too soon.

While the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Murray McCully were busy at the South Pacific Forum meeting in Pohnpei highlighting the $10 million Pacific Sporting Partnerships programme, relations with Fiji were again in trouble.

This time, Fiji’s erratic leader, Brigadier Frank Bainimarama, sacked his Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola taking the post himself.

Kubuabola has managed to have a good relationship with McCully even when Bainimarama has been indulging in his frequent Kiwi-bashing.

There were also more indications over the weekend of Bainimarama’s dictatorial tendencies with the arrest of an opposition politician and a trade unionist and demands that former Prime Minister and leader of the Social Democratic Liberal Party, Sitiveni Rabuka and  Labour Party Leader Mahendra Chaudhry hand themselves in to the police.

These moves were sparked by the men being involved in a panel discussion about the Constitution which took place without a permit.

New Zealand’s relations with Fiji seem to veer from bad to worse largely because of the unpredictable responses of Bainimarama.

At the same time Fiji has begun to implement a “look north” foreign policy which has seen the country target China, Russia and Arabic countries for aid and assistance.

New Zealand diplomats are concerned at the increasing the influence of Russia and China in the Pacific.

This is happening not just in Fiji.

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Vanuatu’s Prime Minister has admitted it received a direct request from China to support its stance on a set of disputed islands.

But Charlot Salwai has denied the tiny Pacific nation received any financial benefit from the move, despite becoming the first country to publicly declare its support.

.He said that despite the fact that China is funding the rebuild of his own office.

The Sporting Partnerships programme and another scheme to deliver television, particularly rugby games, free of charge to Pacific countries is part of New Zealand’s attempt to use soft power to counter the hard cash of the Russians and Chinese.

Meanwhile, Trade Minister Todd McClay has had to postpone a visit to Fiji to discuss the completion of the PACERPlus trade agreement involving a range of Pacific countries and Australia and New Zealand.

McClay says more discussions are now needed between officials on the agreement.
“After seven years of negotiation, final agreement is close, however, a Fiji Government statement last week has said they have issues with some of the outcomes agreed by all Pacific Island countries at the recent Trade Ministers meeting in Christchurch,” says Mr McClay.
“I do not believe Fiji’s statement is a fair reflection of the agreement as it stands. Pacer Plus will be a high-quality agreement which provides opportunities for all Pacific nations and one that recognises the individual developing nature of their economies.

“Having carefully considered their recent statement, I will not be travelling to Fiji this week for bilateral trade discussions but look forward to visiting when issues have been resolved,” says Mr McClay.

This raises the question as to whether the obvious political instability in Fiji is behind its move on the trade agreement.

The Spring Partnership programme is scheduled to involve Fiji.

The programme will be delivered over five years in partnership with New Zealand Rugby and Netball New Zealand, meaning some of New Zealand’s top sports people and administrators will lend their support.

Key said it would initially l focus on working with netball and rugby management in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands, but there was potential to include other sports and countries in the future.