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China and India in the Fiji equation

China and India in the Fiji equation

Professor Wadan Narsey is an Adjunct Professor at The Cairns Institute.

The Fiji regime's clear breach of its own decrees and roadmap to democracy, as described in my previous post, has unsettled traditional donors and must also create serious question marks over the continuing support by China and India.

When it comes to Fiji, the media focus is usually on what Australia and New Zealand think. Most commentators ignore China and India, whose support to Fiji's military regime after the 2006 coup has undermined the diplomatic stances and sanctions of Australia, New Zealand and the EU. Australia and New Zealand, with the support of the US and EU, urgently need to engage with China and India to achieve a common position that can get Fiji back to a credible parliamentary democracy.

In 2006, some international observers were astonished that India so readily supported the military coup in Fiji. India is not only the world's largest democracy, but is painfully aware of the terrible consequences of having a military dictatorship as a destabilising neighbour.

India's support for the Fiji regime may initially have been driven by the regime's rhetoric that the coup was to protect people of Indian descent from unfair domination by the indigenous Fijian majority. This was reinforced when the largely Indo-Fijian Fiji Labour Party, led by Mahendra Chaudhry, joined the military regime in 2007. But that excuse dissolved when Chaudhry was ejected after a year.

India's major economic contribution to the regime, a large loan from the ExIm Bank of India to upgrade the milling efficiency of the Fiji Sugar Corporation, has also become a double-edged sword. The loan proceeds have largely been squandered through a combination of inept management at the Fiji end and inefficient sub-contracting at the Indian end. The sugar industry has not come out of its slump, due to a potent mix of farming, harvesting, cane transporting and milling deficiencies, and India has been under enormous moral pressure from Fiji to convert that loan into a grant. [fold]

To preserve its goodwill with the regime, India has supported Fiji's chairmanship of the International Sugar Organization for 2013. While purely a symbolic role with no impact on the Fiji sugar industry, local sugar industry managers used that chairmanship as propaganda for the regime, no doubt also enhancing the security of their own jobs, despite the disasters they preside over daily.

India is fully aware that the regime has imposed draconian media censorship on all matters, including public discussion of the draft constitution, and that it continues to deny a whole range of basic human rights in Fiji. Having seen the regime already renege on one promise to hold elections in 2009, India may be ruing its past blind diplomatic support of the Fiji military regime. India now has to worry that the regime's machinations over the next two years will further discredit India's support.

Chinese support for the Bainimarama regime does not pose any great dilemma for political analysts: China does not believe in full democratic rights for its own people, or a free media, or indeed the many basic human rights which are taken for granted in the West.

The Chinese economy has enjoyed two decades of incredible economic growth not seen in the history of the capitalist world and has saved the West during the recent global financial crisis. It is inevitable that, as China rivals the US in world politics, its own performance in investment, trade, aid and environmental issues throughout the world will come under greater international scrutiny. China will also have to pay greater heed to good governance, human rights, and environmental issues in the countries to which it gives assistance.

While some in the Fiji regime hold China up as a model, there is no comparison on economic grounds. While Chinese development for the last three decades has been brilliantly managed by the Chinese technocrats, Fiji's has been implemented by a cadre of energetic but ultimately ineffectual military officers, guided by a few powerful civilians.

Chinese investments in Fiji are relatively minor compared to their economic interests in Australia and New Zealand, but China's aid/loan program to Fiji has resulted in many infrastructure developments which will be of significant economic value if and when the economy grows. But Fiji's economy has totally stagnated under the military regime for six years, with rising public debt and increasing poverty. During the same period, other comparable Pacific economies have prospered.

Ultimately, Fiji will have an accountable parliamentary government which will not view favourably China's current unquestioning support for the military regime. China's support of the Fiji regime also undermines the diplomatic stance of Australia and New Zealand, which have a legitimate interest in discouraging unlawful regimes and political instability in Pacific Island countries.

Chinese diplomats in Fiji ought to view the Fiji regime's antics on the draft constitution with disquiet. A regime that tries blatantly to hang on to power, regardless of the massive economic and social costs to its own people, and the continued diplomatic displeasure of Australia and New Zealand, is not in China's long term interests in Fiji or the wider Pacific.

China and India cannot continue to undermine the diplomatic efforts of Australia, New Zealand, the EU and the US in Fiji. One of the weaknesses of international diplomacy in the Pacific is that the traditional powers (Australia, NZ, US, Britain, EU and Japan) have tended not to include China and India as equal dialogue partners (I commented on this anomaly in 2011).

This may be a result of traditional and new powers seeing themselves as competitors for influence with Pacific countries, part of a zero-sum game. In Syria, such rivalry, as exemplified by the refusal of Russia and China to join in common purpose with the West, is the cause of an ongoing human catastrophe in which all are losing.

There is little justification for such great power rivalry in the South Pacific. It would be of great help to Fiji if Australia, New Zealand, the US, EU, and Japan were to invite diplomatic dialogue with China and India to assist in a more 'pacific' solution to its current crisis.

Photo courtesy of Fergus Hanson.

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