Tonga is proposing to trade the disputed Minerva Reef with Fiji, in exchange for the Lau island group.
The Tongan land minister, Lord Ma’afu, is preparing the proposal to put to his Fijian counterpart, to settle once and for all the issue of ownership of the reef.
Observers are unsure of the seriousness of Lord Ma’afu’s proposal for the island kingdom to give up the disputed reef in exchange for the tourist-popular Lau Group.
The Minerva Reef has been at the centre of a long dispute on ownership between the two countries.
The Tongan noble revealed his proposal in the Tonga Daily News’ last week, saying the row between the two countries over the ownership of Minerva Reef was not good for relations.
The reef, which potentially has lucrative undersea mineral deposits, was claimed by Tonga in 1972 and was declared by King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV as a Tongan island.
But in 2005, Fiji lodged a complaint with the International Seabed Authority concerning Tonga’s claim.
“It is not good for our relations. We are closely related and our history dates back a long, long time,” Lord Ma’afu said.
“So in good faith I will propose to the minister for foreign affairs in Fiji that they can have Minerva Reef and we get Lau in return.
No comment has yet been obtained from Fiji’s foreign affairs minister who is overseas.
However, Foreign Affairs permanent secretary Amena Yauvoli said the ministry would just have to wait to see the Tongan government’s proposal.
But an Auckland University indigenous studies expert, Dr Steven Ratuva, told RNZI’s Dateline Pacific the deal appears is one-sided and could be seen as a political joke.
“The first issue is whether he was really serious about it, or is it just one of those Fijian-Tongan humorous political exchanges which normally happens. Because it’s really not the first time it’s been raised.
“In fact in the 1980s the King of Tonga then proposed that half of Fiji actually belongs to Tonga – of course that caused a bit of political stir between the two countries but they were able to sort it out.
“So the latest context of how Lord Ma’afu would make that happen is not very clear. But certainly it has raised a few eyebrows in Fiji. Some have taken it as, perhaps, a political joke. In some cases some people are probably taking it more seriously.
Ratuva said Minerva Reef has always been a serious issue between the nations, particularly after exclusive economic zones (EEZ) were instigated.
“That’s when the issue became very serious, leading to Fiji demolishing the navigational beacon Tonga had planted on the reef.
“That led to a naval showdown between the two countries a couple of years ago. So, it has a lot of serious implications, particularly now.
“Around Minerva Reef there’s a lot of rich deposits for minerals. Whoever claims the reef will have claim to potentially hundreds of millions of dollars worth of wealth.
“And if you’re talking about Tonga’s claims to the Lau islands you’re talking claiming half of the Fiji group.
“Because the Lau group constitutes very small islands, among the smallest islands in Fiji, but in terms of sea area you’re really talking about probably more than half of the total sea area in Fiji.
“So Tonga has a lot to win. It would triple the size of Tonga and reduce the size of Fiji by half.
“If the issue has been taken seriously I think Fiji will begin to realise it will lose out a lot and Tonga will win a lot through the swap.
“While Fiji might win the Minerva Reef, it would lose half of its territory and I’m not sure whether anyone in the Fiji government or the Fijian population at large will be willing to let go of half of its territory.
He said the Tongan land swap proposal, joke or not, is quite audacious.
“It’s like asking New Zealand to give up the North Island. Politically it’s quite a serious, audacious situation and I think it’s something that needs to be sorted out diplomatically .
“Because the last thing that we want is to have a repeat of what happened in 2010.”
Minerva Reef is the convergence of two high-tide submerged atolls named after the whaling ship Minerva that was wrecked there in 1829.
The North and South Minerva reefs are used as anchorages by yachts travelling between New Zealand and Tonga or Fiji and arereportedly excellent places for scuba diving, snorkeling and fishing.
The Lau Group, the most eastern archipelago of Fiji, consists of about sixty islands and islets covering a land area of 487 square kilometres and had a population of 10,683 at the most recent census in 2007.