While New Zealand prime minister John Key hip-hopped his way through Tonga, Samoa, Niue and the Cook Islands – Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama was working on his moves with his own trip to Melanesia.

It took a while to work out why John Key took the Prestige Dance Group on his 'four nations in four days' Pacific tour. But eventually it became clear. He has been engaged in a dancing duel with Frank Bainimarama that will come to a head next month at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Cairns.

Key and his troupe of hip-hop dancers and Polynesian sports stars have been mounting an all-out charm surge to make sure “our” part of the Pacific stays solid until Fiji’s coup leader capitulates and lets his people choose their next government well before his own extended deadline of 2014.

The four letter “F” word was not mentioned in all the official announcements about Key’s four nation tour, which was presented as an effort to reinforce the close relationship with our Pacific neighbours. The focus of discussions would be on the impact of the global economic crisis, priorities for the next Pacific Islands Forum, and his government’s new approach to development assistance in the Pacific.

The new approach was signaled in a speech to the Pacific Wave conference on June 3 by Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully: The budget for overseas development assistance has been increased and more of New Zealand’s development assistance will be concentrated within the Pacific region. “If we cannot get our diplomatic and development assistance efforts working in harmony in the Pacific, we are all wasting our time,” he told the conference.

McCully’s intent was more specifically stated in little-noticed Cabinet papers released two days after the speech. The objective of development assistance has been changed from ‘poverty elimination’ to ‘sustainable economic development’ and from state governance development to private sector-led development. He writes:

“Far too much has been channelled into bureaucracies, under the rubric of ‘improving governance’. These states are certainly weak. But yet further growth of bureaucracy is not the answer… Our ideas do not fit comfortably into a ‘left v right’ framework… Most New Zealand lobbies, often based in church groups, will be unsure, and probably uncomfortable, with our departure from UN-centric language on ‘poverty elimination’. Our interest in promoting private sector led development will be viewed with suspicion.”

Key left New Zealand armed with a new mission and a fat wallet. Funding for overseas development increases from $472 million to $500 million this year, to $525 million next year, $550 million the year after, and $600 million in subsequent years.

He was able to break the good news to the prime ministers of Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands, and Niue, and start the process of negotiating on their bids for “sustainable development” project assistance. There were also a few apparently spontaneous promises along the way – like the offer of Tamiflu in a standard flu emergency, and $1 million a year to sustain unprofitable Air New Zealand services to the Cook Islands.

In Niue, he struck the only real patch of turbulence on the tour. Premier Toki Tulagi was grumpy because Niue was being required to improve its accounting for the use of New Zealand assistance after a critical audit that is currently delaying the provision of $4 million for sustainable development project. If New Zealand does not clear the funds soon, he is threatening to seek them from China. Does that sound familiar?

Tulagi is playing the China card in exactly the same way that Commodore Bainimarama has done in Fiji. That caused me to think about what else the leader of the rebel state and former member of the Pacific Islands Forum has been doing since Fiji was drummed out of the club.

Bainimarama has been busy gathering support for readmission – and painting Australia and New Zealand as the bullying villains causing all his problems. And he is doing a pretty convincing job.

At the end of May, American Samoa’s member of the US Congress, Eni Faleomavaega, warned that the “inept policies and heavy-handed actions” of the New Zealand and Australian governments in the Pacific are putting American interests in the region at risk. He has called for the United States to step up its influence in the region.

Mr Faleomavaega, who chairs the US Congress subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment, warned that China had stepped in to fill the vacuum, offering grants, concessionary loans and enhanced trade opportunities.

In June, just after Pacific Island leaders had been feted in Beijing by the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, Australia’s foreign minister Stephen Smith urged China and the rest of the international community not to use their contacts with Fiji to undermine efforts to pressure Fiji to hold elections.

The next day, Bainimarama was complaining that Australia and New Zealand were behind moves to exclude Fiji from regional trade and economic development related meetings of Pacific island nations.

On the same day our prime minister ran into his frosty reception in Niue, Bainimarama announced that Fiji had served notice on the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum that it wished formal consultation with member nations about its unlawful exclusion from meetings on the development of the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations and the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement.

While John Key was wrapping up his four nation tour, Fiji’s Commodore-in-Chief was in Port Vila, meeting with leaders from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea to talk tactics for the Pacific Islands Forum next month.

As the New Zealand prime minister flew home, Bainimarama was also flying home, to host the Pacific Youth Festival in Fiji, and expecting to welcome President Jose Ramos Horta of East Timor, President Steven Marcus of the Republic of Nauru, and Senator Samoasa of Papua New Guinea, along with delegations from Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Nauru, Tonga and Cook Islands.

The Australian-New Zealand policy of exclusion does not seem to be working with Fiji. We should rephrase McCully’s new policy message. If we cannot get our diplomatic and development assistance efforts working in harmony in Fiji, we are wasting our time in the Pacific.

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