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.
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.
The crisis in ties with Fiji will now also be an interesting early foreign policy test for whoever prevails in this week’s Australian election. For now, Australia has made clear it won’t back down over the issue, with Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith noting that dialogue with Fiji can’t be all one-way. It has also introduced targeted sanctions aimed at those responsible for the coup.
There’s a domestic political calculation in Australia’s firm approach, with the ruling Australian Labor Party likely playing to the ‘Indian gallery’—those sympathetic to the struggles on the island—in an effort to secure support among the Fiji Indian and Indian community more broadly. Following the international spat over attacks on Indian students last year in Australia it’s easy to see why Labor would be keen to try to consolidate support among Indians.
More broadly, the Labor government now under Prime Minister Julia Gillard appears to be trying to choke the ruling establishment in Fiji, not just through sanctions aimed at the regime, but also by stoking internal resentment by making it harder for Fijians to emigrate to Australia and New Zealand.
Will this work? The danger is that such moves will not only further isolate Fiji, but that they may also encourage it to step up its ‘Look North’ policy (for this read boosting ties with Beijing). For a leadership shunned by others in the Pacific, closer ties with China must seem like a win-win situation, with Fiji gaining more access to a huge market without the lecturing over democracy.
One of the problems in the case of lecturing Fiji is that civil-military relations are not yet properly demarcated as they have been in many Western nations. Back in 1957, Samuel Huntington penned a landmark study on civilian-military relations called ‘The Soldier and the State: the Theory and Practice of Civil-Military Relations.’ In it, he says the responsibilities of the military to the state are threefold: representative, advisory and executive. In Fiji’s case though, inept civilian administration has prompted the military to actually take the lead in setting the agenda that Huntington’s model has the military only implementing, with elected officials having either been corrupt or lacking the charisma to unify the ethnically diverse island.
The indecisiveness and inability of the civilian leadership to take a lead was perhaps most on display last April, when the Court of Appeal ruled that the military government was illegally appointed after the 2006 coup, and that democracy should be returned as soon as possible. Fiji’s president, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, responded by dissolving parliament and suspending the Constitution, only to reinstate Bainimarama as interim prime minister a day later.
Perhaps most interesting though is that this battle for influence comes at a time when the role of the United States in the region is in the spotlight following its recent spat with China over the South China Sea. So far, Washington has not commented on the dispute between Fiji and Australia. But the vying for influence going on between Australia and China could have interesting implications for every country that feels it has a stake in the region’s stability—the United States included.
Balaji Chandramohan is editor of World Security Network for Asia. He can be reached at: [email protected]