Author: Abigail Sia, Johns Hopkins
On September 17, 2014, the number of remaining military dictatorships in the Asia-Pacific region decreased from three to two. North Korea and Thailand still remain under military regimes, and the country that successfully shed its military dictatorship is, perhaps surprisingly, a tiny Pacific island nation – Fiji. Yet this small country of just over 900,000 people has now presented the United States with an opportunity to improve bilateral relations with an important Pacific island ally, as well as an opportunity to push against rising Chinese influence in this remote region of the world.
For a country its size, Fiji has had a remarkably turbulent political history since its independence from Great Britain in 1970. There have been four coups d’état in Fiji’s 44 years as an independent state, mainly stemming from conflicts between indigenous Fijians and the economically-powerful Indo-Fijians – the descendants of indentured workers brought from India to farm the British colonial sugar plantations. Political tensions boiled over after the 1999 election installed the country’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister, and on May 19, 2000, Fijian nationalists stormed the Parliament buildings and proceeded to hold the Prime Minister, his cabinet, members of Parliament, and staff members hostage for 56 days. Fiji later transitioned back to democracy in 2001.
Tensions between Commodore Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama (now Rear Admiral), who led the interim government in 2000, and Prime Minister Laisenia Qarese (whom Bainimarama helped install) over a series of controversial policy debates erupted into another military coup in 2006. Qarese’s government had been considering legislation that would have granted amnesty to the perpetrators of the 2000 coup. Bainimarama, meanwhile, wanted to see the perpetrators brought to justice. He also attacked Qarese for promoting the Qoliqoli Bill, which would have transferred proprietary rights of beach, lagoon, and reef land from state ownership into the hands of ethnic Fijians to the detriment of the Indo-Fijians and other minorities. On December 5, 2006, the Fijian military ousted Qarese while Bainimarama appointed himself temporary president. Bainimarama was later appointed Prime Minister and leader of the FijiFirst political party.
For such a remote country, Fiji received a lot of international attention after Bainimarama and the military took power. The coup was strongly condemned, especially by Fiji’s powerful neighbors Australia and New Zealand who moved to isolate Fiji through travel bans and sanctions. Meanwhile, the United States suspended $2.5 million in development aid, issued visa bans against coup leaders, suspended arms sales, decreased its bilateral engagement with Fiji, and halted military and other types of assistance to the Fijian government.
Fiji became even more isolated in 2009 after Bainimarama broke his promise to hold democratic elections, claiming that he needed more time to reform the voting system that heavily favored ethnic Fijians over the multi-ethnic minorities. The European Union suspended millions of dollars in development aid and subsidies to farmers in Fiji’s key sugar industry. The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) – an important body for the Pacific Island nations and their neighbors and allies to discuss common issues and possible solutions –suspended Fiji from participation, thus highlighting Fiji’s increasing isolation from the rest of the region. Finally, the Commonwealth of Nations, of which Fiji is a part due to its status as a former British colony, also suspended Fiji’s participation. (Fiji was initially suspended after the 2006 coup, and Bainimarama’s failure to hold elections in 2009 led the Commonwealth to “fully” suspend Fiji’s membership).
Stripped of its ability to participate in several important forums and diplomatically, economically, and geographically isolated, Fiji turned to another regional power for aid and assistance: China. Decades before President Obama announced his “rebalance to Asia” policy, China was already seeking to expand its influence among the tiny Pacific island nations and engaged in what has been called “checkbook diplomacy” as it vied for diplomatic recognition over Taiwan. From 1949 to roughly 1994, China and Taiwan sought to win allies in the South Pacific with promises of developmental aid. When the two countries called an unofficial truce, the South Pacific was split down the middle – six countries recognized China, the other six recognized Taiwan.
Nowadays, China’s influence comes in the form of loans. After Fiji’s suspension from the PIF and the Commonwealth, it explicitly adopted a “Look North” policy and turned to Beijing. Chinese fishing fleets now operate out of Suva, Fiji’s capital; Chinese money built a huge hospital; and Fiji’s universities teach and promote Chinese language and culture. And while the Pacific nations usually favor Chinese loans because they usually come with few strings attached, the fact is that Chinese loans frequently have higher interest rates than those from Western institutions such as the World Bank. Additionally, China usually sends its own laborers to work on the project with materials imported from China, thus having little actual benefit on the local economy. But when the traditional Western donors turned away from Fiji, China stepped in to fill the void.
The West, after watching China’s growing involvement in the Pacific, looked forward eagerly to Fiji’s 2014 elections. Australia, traditionally the dominant power and donor in the Pacific region, was especially worried that it would suddenly find itself surrounded by Pacific island nations whose interests aligned more with China. Thus, Australia started to dismantle its sanctions well in advance of September 17. This would actually have been a concern for the United States as well, because Australia has risen to become its staunchest ally in the region and one of its closest partners in global affairs. While the elections produced a result that many had expected – the FijiFirst party claimed victory with nearly 60 percent of the popular vote, and Bainimarama was installed as the democratically elected prime minister – the international team of observers certified the election as legitimate. The international community warmly received the news of Bainimarama’s election, and it has indicated that it will soon welcome Fiji back into the community of nations.
As Australia and New Zealand continue to dismantle their remaining sanctions on Fiji and the Commonwealth works towards restoring Fiji’s membership (no word on the PIF yet, as Fiji declared in April that it would not rejoin unless Australia and New Zealand were forced out), the United States and its allies are now at a crucial juncture with enormous potential to revitalize relations with Suva. Fiji has also proven itself to be an eager participant in multilateral organizations such as the UN, and, like other Pacific island nations, one of its most important bargaining chips is its sovereign status and voting rights on UN resolutions. The Pacific islands usually vote alongside the United States in the UN General Assembly, and growing Chinese influence in the Pacific could sway some countries to start voting with China. Fiji has also eagerly provided troops for UN peacekeeping missions – in September, a group of 45 Fijian peacekeepers was released after being kidnapped in Golan Heights by the Al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front – and even the war in Afghanistan, despite its small population.
Furthermore, although the Obama Administration declared a clear intention to rebalance US priorities and increase focus on Asia, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other flare-ups in the Middle East threaten to sap more and more of the United States’ attention and resources and divert the Administration’s efforts in Asia. Restoring good relations with Fiji, a cultural and economic hub of the Pacific region, will demonstrate that the United States is still committed to the rebalance. It will also send a sign to the other Pacific island nations that, despite their small sizes and remote locations, the United States considers them to be important friends.