Fiji’s leader Frank Bainimarama was set to dine with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last night, just weeks after the pair clashed over climate change at a Pacific summit.
Bainimarama arrived in Australia on Wednesday for five days of meetings with members of the Fijian community in Sydney and Canberra, as well as a bilateral meeting with Morrison today when they are expected to talk trade and investment.
The former military strongman said before the visit that he did not expect a repeat of the fireworks at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Tuvalu last month.
That summit ended in recriminations and finger-pointing as Morrison rejected Pacific leaders’ demands to ban new coalmines and coal-fired power plants as part of their call for urgent climate action.
At the time, Bainimarama characterised Morrison as “very insulting, very condescending” for pointing out that Australia was the region’s largest foreign aid donor.
While reiterating his call for Australia to move away from coal, Bainimarama told Fiji’s parliament last week that his visit would be about looking for common ground.
“Whatever our differences on climate change, we have far too many things in common and we have been friends for too long to allow any lasting damage to our relationship,” he said.
Morrison also played down the tensions: “I have a wonderful relationship with Frank Bainimarama. I’m looking forward to seeing him again.”
It will be the first official visit to Australia by the 65-year-old Fijian leader, who was denounced as a dictator by Canberra when he seized power in a bloodless military coup 13 years ago.
Australia subsequently imposed sanctions and successfully pushed for Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum.
In response, Bainimarama increasingly turned to China, giving Beijing a foothold in the region that Australia and its allies are still desperately trying to contain.
Relations warmed when the leader convincingly won long-promised elections in 2014 and his legitimacy was further enhanced when he was appointed president of the United Nation’s COP 23 efforts to mitigate climate change.
His transition from military strongman to climate warrior means it is Bainimarama, rather than Australia, who is now claiming the moral high ground in the relationship.
“We are asking Australia to speed up its transition out of coal and accelerate its investment in clean energy, an area in which it can lead the world and help halt the rise in greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.
Australia is one of Fiji’s largest trading partners, with two-way trade of about Aus $2.1 billion ($1.4 billion) annually, according to official data from Canberra.
The Lowy Institute think tank says it also remains Fiji’s largest aid donor, spending $357 million since 2011, compared to $316 million from China.