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Fiji is not China's political football

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4 October 2012 14:46

Philippa Brant is a researcher working on China's foreign aid. Concern has arisen again over China’s relationship with Fiji after a senior government delegation visit last week.

Wu Bangguo, China's second-ranked Communist Party leader, caused a stir in the Australian and New Zealand media last week for his reported comments criticising the 'bullying of strong countries over small or weak ones'.

China has certainly not joined Australia and New Zealand in condemning the military-led government in Fiji for its continued restrictions on democracy, but it has, until now, tried to distance itself from appearing too close to Commodore Bainimarama. Since my research visit to Fiji in late 2009 I have argued that China would ultimately not risk its relationship with Australia and New Zealand over Fiji. Despite announcing a 34% increase since last year in Chinese-Fijian trade, the US$172 million is still dwarfed by China's economic relationship with Australia.

Wu's comments don't change this basic judgment. They should be seen as political posturing rather than a nefarious attempt to use Fiji as some kind of political football in a Cold War-esque geopolitical contest, as some commentators have suggested. Wu is telling the Fijian government exactly what it wants to hear.

Wu's visit was significant in terms of expanding development cooperation, with the signing of three new economic & technical cooperation agreements: two 'framework documents' (memoranda of understanding rather than anything concrete) and one concessional loan agreement of 200 million Fijian dollars ($US112 million) to upgrade the Nabouwalu-Dreketi road.

In recent years China's concessional loans to Fiji have been, in total:

  • $US35.83 million for low-cost housing (2009).
  • $US102.4 million for three road projects (2011).
  • $US10.8 million for the Somosomo hydrodam (2011).

Of these, only the hydrodam loan was not part of the April 2006 Regional Soft Loan package. Last week's agreement thus marks the first major concessional loan agreement since Bainimarama took power in October 2006. Other aid projects in the pipeline include the Navua hospital (agreement signed back in 2009) and the Vanua Levi rice program. Wu Bangguo also announced the provision of 30 scholarships for Fijian students to study in China.

Buried in the Chinese Ambassador's statement on Wu Bangguo's visit was an announcement that China is willing to work with other stakeholders to promote sustainable development in the South Pacific. Coming alongside the recent agreement for a joint aid project between New Zealand and China in the Cook Islands, this should be regarded as a positive step from China. Australia should read it as a signal to increase efforts to engage with China, to help ensure that China's presence in Fiji benefits the Fijian people.

 

Photo by Flickr user ccarlstead.

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