By Alastair Davis, an intern in the Lowy Institute Melanesia Program.

Tropical Cyclone Winston made landfall on the two main islands of Fiji, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, as well as a host of smaller nearby islands on February 20. A category five storm with winds up to 315 km per hour, Winston is the most powerful recorded cyclone to strike the Pacific. The death toll stands at 43 and an estimated 350,000 people have been affected. Social media documented the destruction caused by Winston, making  the gravity of the situation in Fiji immediately clear to governments and citizens alike.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Fiji over the weekend to inspect the Australian contribution to the relief effort and meet with Fiji's Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and disaster relief officials. Ms Bishop’s trip is an opportunity to discuss Australia’s long term role in the recovery from Winston and may be instrumental in reshaping the sometimes stuttering relationship with Fiji.

Reactions to the quick succession of Cyclones Pam (which hit Vanuatu one year ago), and Winston have demonstrated a regional kinship that recalls the Pacific’s unity in advocating for strong action on climate change. In Pacific Island capitals, the increasing severity of tropical storms and climate change are inextricably linked. Leaders of Pacific Island countries have been vocal in citing climate change as a causal factor in the increase of storms that threaten their populations. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, a strong regional advocate for more action on climate change from the developed world, has been particularly critical of Australia for its weak climate stance.

The international community has responded quickly to help Fiji with relief contributions flowing in from a geographically diverse group of countries. Speaking about the relief effort, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister, and current chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, Peter O’Neill declared that 'in the Pacific we pull together when disaster strikes and this cyclone is no exception.' Reported international contributions have been forthcoming from:

Pacific island neighbours have also been quick to help. Still engaged in the long term recovery from Cyclone Pam, Vanuatu has committed $121,000. Neighbouring Tonga, which narrowly escaped a direct hit from Winston, has delivered relief supplies to Vanua Balavu in eastern Fiji. Drought affected PNG has contributed $2.5 million. Kiribati, Samoa, Tuvalu and Nauru have all pledged around $100 000 each. The generosity of these Pacific neighbours, many of which are dealing with uncertain fiscal situations and natural disasters of their own, is notable.

The point of difference in relief efforts by neighbouring countries and those of distant donors is not the dollar value, but logistical capabilities. Globalisation has profoundly shrunk the world through technological and intellectual connectivity but, as far disaster relief is concerned, proximity still matters.

Australia has deployed its largest naval vessel HMAS Canberra for its first overseas humanitarian and disaster relief operation, as well as C17A Globemaster, C130J Hercules aircraft and MRH 90 helicopters. The deployment of HMAS Canberra for a humanitarian operation may be the start of a trend. Requests for the Australian Defence Force to respond to natural disasters are projected to increase.

New Zealand has sent HMNZS Canterbury and Wellington along with C130 and P3 Orion aircraft. France has sent Casa C-212 aircraft from New Caledonia to assist.

These military assets multiply the effectiveness of all disaster relief contributions. Assisting communities within Pacific Island countries after natural disasters is complicated by geographically dispersed populations, fragile logistics chains and inevitable damage to communications networks. Foreign military assistance provides invaluable support to the Fijian government and Red Cross in providing accurate assessments of the cyclone’s impact. Regional familiarity and historical links between militaries make Australia and New Zealand indispensable partners in Pacific disaster relief.

The long term relief effort will force the Fijian government to consider its intentions in regard to its role in the region and its preferred international partnerships. The cost of the recovery is not yet clear. The initial government estimate is $650 million, though the experience of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu showed the difficulties of projecting the cost of recovery.

The economic recovery from Winston and the handover from military to civilian institutions will shed more light on the depth of the new relationships Fiji has cultivated with China and Russia.

In disaster response, Fiji’s foreign policy predisposition to ‘look north’ is unworkable. This was always quietly understood, but it has been conspicuously reinforced in the wake of Cyclone Winston. Whether this reminder of Australia and New Zealand’s irreplaceable role in disaster relief in the Pacific convinces the Fijian government to accelerate the rapprochement it began with these nations in 2014 will be significant in setting the course for Fiji’s foreign policy.

The deployment of three Fijian-born Australian Defence Force servicemen on HMAS Canberra as part of the relief effort is emblematic of the fraternal strength of Australia and Fiji’s relationship. Geographical proximity and personal links counterbalance the government’s desire to pivot away from its traditional foreign policy partners.

The Fijian people are more likely to look southwards when thinking about migration, education and business, and this instinct is reinforced in times of distress. This outlook is anchored by a long collective memory, and adjusts far more slowly than the government’s diplomatic about-face.  A wide disconnect between public opinion and foreign policy on this front could be difficult for the government to explain and manage.

The sight of ubiquitous kangaroo logos on Australian aid supplies will remind Fijians of Australia’s enduring friendship and Ms Bishop’s message that 'this is our neighbourhood, this is our region' will resonate. Although Australia’s response to Cyclone Winston offers an opportunity to continue to improve the bilateral relationship with Fiji, this is not the basis on which Australia assists its neighbours in times of need.

While assistance from international partners is sorely needed, ultimately it is the Fijian government which drives the recovery effort. It is encouraging to see Fiji’s political leaders acknowledge the Australian and New Zealand governments’ cooperation with the Fijian authorities to support the response. It will be interesting to see if the goodwill this is generating with the Fiji government extends to other areas of the relationship.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library