by Eni Faleomavaega
As a Pacific nation with vital national interests in Oceania, the US should pay far greater attention to the nations in that part of the world. And nowhere in Oceania is American attention more pertinent than in Fiji.
The country plays a critical role in the region. With a population close to 1 million citizens, Fiji serves as a lifeline to other island nations and it plays a vital part in trans-Pacific trade routes with vast marine and seabed minerals.
Just days after the recent crisis, I visited Suva to meet the interim Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, the deposed prime minister Laisenia Qarase, the former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry and other key leaders.
Based on those discussions, I am more convinced than ever that the US should play a more proactive and independent role, one offering the country a better chance of emerging from its current crisis, eliminating its "coup culture" once and for all and establishing a more stable government.
For too long, the US has deferred to Australia and New Zealand in the region, despite their obvious policy failures. On Fiji, Canberra and Wellington have employed heavy-handed tactics and misguided sanctions that have hurt average Fijians far more than the interim government at which they were targeted.
Punishing average Fijians will never solve the country's problems. Rather, by making life in Fiji increasingly difficult, Canberra and Wellington may well be sowing the seeds of civil unrest and violence.
In addition, as Australia and New Zealand attempt to strong-arm Fiji into complying with their dictates, China has moved in to fill the vacuum, offering grants, concessionary loans and enhanced trade opportunities. Of course, as a country with global economic reach, I commend China's efforts to provide economic and financial assistance to these island nations. After all, China is just as much part of our Pacific community as Japan, New Zealand, Australia and the US.
It should be noted that over the past five years, Australia and New Zealand's combined exports and imports to Pacific island nations were more than $US25 billion ($32 billion). Fiji alone counts for almost $US4 billion during the same period.
The problem is that the interests of Australia and New Zealand may diverge - sometimes significantly - from those of Washington.
Moreover, foreign policy elites in Australia and New Zealand erroneously view the region with a Eurocentric mentality without having a better sense of appreciation of Fiji's colonial history.
In Fiji, for example, the country's complex ethnic mix - coupled with its chiefly, provincial, religious and family rivalries - is not adequately appreciated by Canberra and Wellington. Fortunately, the Obama Administration is gaining a better understanding of Fiji - and how our friends in Canberra and Wellington have dropped the ball.
Bainimarama has made it clear that he intends to draft a constitution that will reflect the country's unique culture and history. He has also promised to enact electoral reforms that will establish equal suffrage and to hold free, fair and democratic elections.
I believe the US should take the interim Prime Minister at his word, and help Fiji move that process along as swiftly as possible.
As a first step, the US should offer the country the necessary resources to facilitate reform of its electoral process, to redraft its constitution and to better assure successful elections.
In addition, Washington should work with friends from all sides to build strong institutions capable of sustaining democracy, peace and stability in Fiji.
The US Government, our premier universities and our leading non-government organisations have the expertise, the experience and the ability to provide the sort of assistance Fiji may seek as it moves beyond its current difficulties in its political development.
Finally, Washington should offer to help strengthen the country's economy - and hence Fiji's long-term stability - through the promotion of bilateral trade and investment, particularly in its vital tourism industry.
I believe the US should work with Fiji, and every effort should be made to pursue strategic and promotional programs that would be more environmentally sustainable and more responsive to local needs.
Beyond aiding a friend during a critical period - a worthy endeavour in and of itself - greater US engagement with Fiji would provide an important opportunity for the Obama Administration to demonstrate its interest in developing a proactive and sustained approach to a key country at the vital core of Oceania.
If there was ever a moment for the Obama Administration to implement its promising policy of "smart diplomacy" in Oceania, now is the time and Fiji is clearly the place - Sydney Morning Herald