Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fiji, China and the future of the Pacific

Source: The Diplomat 
August 22, 2010 

There is growing speculation and analysis internationally over the implications of Fiji’s rift with Australia and New Zealand, with a new magazine article questioning whether the spat is an early indication of China’s future role in the Pacific.

The article in The Diplomat said that Fiji has been drawing attention for standing up to regional power Australia beginning with the expulsion last month acting Australian High Commissioner Sarah Roberts. 

“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,” the magazine reported.

It said that Fiji had 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.

“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,” it said.

“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 Bainimarama continuing in power.

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