Fiji has been back in the news, but this time not because of a coup or ethnic violence—problems that have wracked the tiny South Pacific island nation in recent years. Instead, it has been drawing attention for standing up to regional power Australia.
Last month, the island’s self-appointed prime minister, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, decided to expel acting Australian High Commissioner Sarah Roberts. Indeed, he went as far as to declare her a persona non grata—the toughest form of censure for a foreign diplomat.
The official explanation was that Roberts had been expelled for ‘interfering with the internal affairs of Fiji and conducting unfriendly acts.’ But the real reason was more likely pique at the cancellation, after Australian lobbying, of the five-member Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) over concerns about democracy and governance in the military-run country.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Bainimarama, who took power in a coup in 2006, has rejected such claims, although he also hinted at the possibility of cancelling the island’s planned return to democratic election in 2014 over what he argues is foreign meddling in Fiji’s affairs.
But his defiance hasn’t stopped there. Fiji has begun to act more assertively in other ways, for example proposing holding an ‘Engaging Fiji’ meeting as an alternative to the MSG.
So what has emboldened Bainimarama to turn against Australia? The answer is almost certainly the island’s warming ties with China, a country Fiji has courted since being expelled from the Commonwealth and Pacific Islands Forum, in an effort to legitimize Bainimarama’s rule.
The tack the prime minister is taking was clear during his visit to China earlier this month, during which he said he would distance his island from Australia and New Zealand in favour of a country he said better understands the ‘reforms’ he is trying to introduce.
Fiji has already started to relax immigration rules for Chinese students wishing to come to Fiji to study English, which some see as a more cost-effective destination than Australia or New Zealand (the island has also been working hard to counter any impressions of it being a banana republic or failed state).
Meanwhile, Fiji also appointed former Finance Minister Sir James Ah Koy to head its embassy in Beijing and China is set to reciprocate by sending a government delegation to the island when Fiji observes the 40th anniversary of its independence on October 10.
In return for these efforts, China gains the allegiance of a nation in a region that Australia has itself been wooing. Many South Pacific islands receive significant investment and aid from Australia, including Papua New Guinea, which relies on Canberra for 59 percent of its imports and which last year received A$457 million worth of aid. The Solomons, meanwhile, received A$226 million, while Vanuatu got A$66 million.
Such assistance helps Australia wield greater influence over the MSG, whose current chair, Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Natapei, echoed Australian and others’ concerns over the legitimacy of Bainimarama continuing in power.