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Fiji grabs the limelight as leaders of China and India visit

Fiji grabs the limelight as leaders of China and India visit

Jenny Hayward-Jones is Director of the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program and Philippa Brant is a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute.

Pacific Island leaders have had the rare opportunity to meet the international leader of the moment, Narendra Modi, and the president of the world's economic powerhouse, Xi Jinping, within the same week.

Both leaders had sufficient star power for many Pacific Island leaders to make a special trip to Fiji to meet the visiting leaders.

That Fiji was able to convene meetings for two such important leaders in one week is a diplomatic coup for the newly elected Government, which is seeking to recreate its image on the international stage. Fiji's media is naturally playing up the significance of the leaders of China and India visiting Fiji before the leaders of Australia and New Zealand have. Other international media outlets have played into this by emphasising the strategic calculations behind the two visits.

But to keep things in perspective, both Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping (and for that matter French President Francois Hollande, who dropped into New Caledonia last week), were in the region because of the G20 meeting that Australia hosted. It is unlikely either would have made a special trip to Fiji were it not for the location of the G20 this year. The fact that President Xi had very little new to announce to island leaders suggested it was more a visit of convenience than of strategic significance. [fold]

The 'strategic partnership' (featuring mutual respect and common development) that Xi announced with the countries of the region consisted mostly of initiatives already underway. Announcements of 2000 scholarships, zero tariffs for 97% of imports from the least developed countries in the region, and promises of more Chinese tourism and cooperation in areas like trade, agriculture, fisheries and infrastructure construction were all announced by Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang in Guangzhou last year.

Although not new, these initiatives are potentially valuable. Scholarships abroad are highly sought after by Pacific Island students. Pacific Island countries, particularly Fiji, will benefit from Chinese initiatives to increase the number of Chinese tourists traveling to the region and from encouragement of Chinese investment in tourism. Fiji appeared to be the main beneficiary of new announcements from Beijing. A US$11 million grant to Fiji was announced and is expected to be linked to infrastructure development. New visa exemptions for Fiji citizens will be valuable in increasing people-to-people links.

In his keynote speech to Pacific Island leaders, Xi Jinping said China stands ready to enhance communication with the island countries on 'global governance, poverty elimination, disaster reduction, food security, energy security, humanitarian aid and climate change to safeguard the common interests of all developing countries.' While China does not like to be perceived as a 'donor' in the traditional Western sense, Xi Jinping has clearly adopted the language of the international development community and knows how to appeal to his audience. His reference to climate change both in the speech and in bilateral meetings with island leaders will be well received at a time when the commitment of the region's major development partner, Australia, to tackling climate change is in doubt.

Indian Prime Minister Modi's visit to Fiji earlier in the week arguably made a bigger public splash, largely because of his international rockstar reputation and his ability to connect with diaspora communities. Fiji-Indians make up approximately 37% of the Fijian population. 

Unlike Xi, Modi was welcomed by large crowds of enthusiastic supporters in Suva. In remarks to a meeting of Pacific Island leaders, Prime Minister Modi announced a number of new policies for the region, including a US$1 million special climate change adaptation fund, a pan-Pacific Islands project for tele-medicine and tele-health, visas on arrival for all 14 Pacific Island countries, an increase in bilateral aid from US$125,000 to US$200,000 per annum, some trade promotion assistance, training for diplomats and a new regular Forum for India-Pacific Islands cooperation. While these initiatives are potentially constructive and play to some of India's strengths, they are relatively minor contributions to development compared to those made by the region's major donors.

As with the announcements made by Xi, Fiji was the main beneficiary of new Indian largesse. After talks with Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, Modi announced India would provide a US$70 million line of credit to build a co-generation power plant at a sugar mill, a parliamentary library, and US$5 million to strengthen and modernise small and medium size businesses. Modi's speeches and remarks in Fiji suggest India's relationship with the Pacific Islands region will remain largely focused on Fiji, either as the target of India's attentions or as a 'hub' through which India engages with other Pacific Island countries. 

Even if Xi and Modi's visits were more about style than strategic substance, Fiji's government has had a big win in the last week. Fiji has reasserted its claims for regional leadership, potentially at the expense of Papua New Guinea, which has been seeking a similar role for itself in recent years. In acting as the host for two meetings of Pacific Island leaders, the Fiji Government portrayed Fiji as the natural hub for the region. It also benefited more than any other country from the few new aid announcements that were a necessary feature of the visits of both leaders, propelling it into the international spotlight for a few days.

Photo courtesy of Facebook user Fiji Ministry of Information.

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