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Fiji: Limits to 'Look North' policy

25 June 2010 08:54

Matt Hill is a Lowy Institute intern and New Zealand Freyberg Scholar pursuing a Master's in Strategic Studies at ANU.

Fiji's so-called 'Look North' policy predates Commodore Bainimarama military-led regime, but there is little doubt that attempts to engage with China have gained traction in the wake of Western condemnation of the December  2006 coup. Indeed, such dynamics are sidelining Australian and New Zealand policy towards Fiji, according to Fijian Brigadier General Pita Driti:

Tell them China is knocking on our door, Russia is knocking on our door. Russia is now more interested in the Pacific. We want a balance of power not bullies like these two.

References to Russia evoke regional memories of Cold War-era Soviet fishing fleets. China's presence, however, is a contemporary reality. Fergus Hanson and others have highlighted the rapid expansion of Beijing's investment in relations with Suva, from the redevelopment of its embassy and pledges of US$83 million in soft loans and grants in 2008, to the transit visit of Vice-President Xi Jinping in February 2009.

How does China balance the costs and benefits of its influence in Fiji, and what does this imply for the longevity of its presence?  

Competition with Taiwan is often cited as motivating Beijing's regional engagement, but it is uncertain how well this argument has stacked up in recent years. Since the election of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeuo in mid-2008, an aura of relative calm has settled over Beijing-Taipei relations.

This truce reflects the Ma government's unwillingness to disturb emerging cross-strait rapprochement. With increasing economic interdependence and the persistence of the mainland military threat, it is uncertain whether Taiwan would risk antagonising Beijing over flag-rights on distant islands.

The converse dynamic may be shaping Beijing's perspective. The PRC's previous willingness to engage in competition over diplomatic recognition was predicated on its own sense of insecurity regarding separatism, as well as a desire to expand its international presence. 

These factors too have been influenced by recent events. Improving cross-strait relations over the past two years have reduced Beijing's anxiety over Taiwan's pursuit of de jure independence, while China's rapid ascension to the global limelight has gone a long way to soothing national self-confidence. Consequently, it is likely that the PRC’s sensitivity to Suva’s diplomatic maneuvers has been dulled.

Finally, there is the impact on Beijing's calculations of tacit Australian, New Zealand, and American push-back regarding the impact of China's aid on Western attempts to isolate Suva internationally.

Canberra and Wellington have repeatedly staked their regional political credibility on their opposition to Bainimarama's rule. Backing down would humiliate the Australasian powers. By continuing its support for Suva, Beijing risks stoking an additional element of tension in its relations with the Australasian powers, with whom it shares far more significant political and economic relationships. It is inconceivable that, over the long-term, the PRC's interests in Fiji will be allowed to threaten those in Australasia.

While hardly invalidating the increasing importance of the PRC in the Pacific, these dynamics raise questions as to the long-term viability of the Bainimarama regime's exploitation of those benefits to offset domestic and international weakness.

Photo by Flickr user forchaza, used under a Creative Commons license.