Australian Outlook

In this section

Continuity and Flux in Fiji-China Relations

21 May 2024
By Dr Sandra Tarte and Dr Nicola Baker
Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka meets to discuss new road plans. Source: Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka Face Book /

Increasing geopolitical tensions and domestic political pressures have tested Fiji’s efforts to strike a balance in relations with its traditional partners and China. Its actions also illustrate that on questions of sovereignty, external pressure, undue influence, and interference extend beyond China.

When the Coalition Government led by Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka was sworn  into power in Fiji on Christmas Eve 2022 it marked an historic moment: the beginning of a peaceful transition of power, uninterrupted by coups or civil disturbance.

But international attention was preoccupied not with whether Fiji had finally ended the coup cycle, but with what the new Government’s stance would be towards China. As a recently aired documentary by the Australian television program 60 Minutes makes clear, that preoccupation has fanned claims in Western media about China as a disruptive – if not predatory – actor in Fiji and the wider region.

It is little wonder that the Fijian prime minister (who is also foreign minister) has repeatedly described the Pacific as being “at the centre of geopolitical tensions.” Major powers were, in his view, seeking to “polarize the Pacific into their own camps,” compelling countries to choose sides and further militarising the region.

Like a number of other Pacific island countries, Fiji has long held the position of “friends to all, enemies to none.” In the Pacific islands context, this posture has been interpreted to mean being free to choose who to partner with; and not being told by others who they can or cannot be friends with. It is a form of non-alignment that does not preclude security agreements but seeks to avoid or resist being confined to spheres of influence. As former Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama declared in 2015: “We have no desire as a Pacific Small Island Developing State to be drawn into the conflicts of others.”

This non-alignment principle has been qualified to some extent by the foreign policy orientation of the government of the day. During the early years of the Bainimarama era, there was a tilt towards China. This was primarily a response to the diplomatic isolation and sanctions imposed on the government by Western partners (including Australia, New Zealand, and the United States) after the coup of 2006, which had compelled Fiji to actively seek new friends and allies. After the return to elected government in 2014, relations were restored with Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, and some foreign policy equilibrium was achieved. But it was not long before the Western partners, led by Australia, began publicly asserting the existence of a Chinese strategic threat to the region. Soon thereafter, these states launched a new campaign of “strategic denial” and, inter alia, escalated their engagement with Fiji.

When Bainimarama’s regime was ousted by a coalition of parties dominated by Rabuka’s People’s Alliance Party in the 2022 general election, it was expected that the new government would be less friendly towards China and realign itself more with its “traditional” Western partners. Some saw signs of such a shift in Rabuka’s cancellation of a meeting with the visiting Chinese foreign minister in April 2023, the March reinstatement of the Taiwanese mission’s name to Trade Mission of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to Fiji (after a 2018 downgrade), and promises of an end to Fiji’s longstanding police cooperation agreement with China.

But Western optimism did not last. The diplomatic upgrade of the Taiwan Trade Office was reversed; Fiji withdrew its signature from the 51 country statement at the UN calling for an end to China’s persecution of its Uighur minority; and revised but did not terminate the policing agreement. Fiji also accepted a large Chinese grant for the construction of roads in Vanua Levu and, to great alarm among its Western partners, announced on the sidelines of APEC that China had agreed to help with port upgrades and with developing a shipbuilding industry.

The Chinese government admitted that the quid pro quo for this infrastructure assistance to Fiji was that “China expects Fiji to continue providing firm support on issues concerning China’s core interests and major concerns.” The “core interests  and major concerns” are the One China policy, China’s domestic sovereignty, and its rights in its territorial disputes with neighbouring states.

Fiji’s governments are likely to continue to provide such support as long as there is no serious conflict with Fiji’s fundamental foreign policy interests. These include upholding the sanctity of the principles and rules embedded in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Moreover, Fiji benefits from Chinese development assistance, and does not view China’s regional presence as strategically threatening as do its Western partners.

Rabuka’s continued engagement with China has had the effect of provoking these Western partners into seeking to outbid or delegitimise Chinese initiatives, especially in the security sector where China is suspected of attempting to extend its strategic reach. But, while his government would have anticipated and welcomed the Australian offer to replace China as its partner in upgrading Fiji’s ports and shipbuilding industry, Australia’s attempt to delegitimise the policing arrangement with China by associating it with official Chinese transnational drug promotion was not appreciated.

As the Fiji government’s reaction to the latter suggests, its concerns about the effects on its sovereignty of external pressure, undue influence, and interference extend beyond China. That Western partners, and in particular Australia, have increasingly asserted their right to a say in regional and individual Pacific Island Countries foreign policy decisions has caused some dismay and discomfort.

The Rabuka government may be attempting to maximise Fiji’s foreign policy independence, manoeuvrability, and leverage, or to strike a balance between its relations with its traditional partners and China. But it also may not yet have developed a settled foreign policy posture based on consultation and consensus within its foreign policy and security establishment. If there is some disagreement and a lack of direction and coordination, the recently initiated Foreign Policy White Paper drafting process should, if sufficiently inclusive, prove of great value.

Sandra Tarte is Associate Professor and acting head, School of Law and Social Sciences, University of the South Pacific Pacific. Sandra specialises in the international politics of the Pacific Islands region with a particular interest in Fiji’s foreign policy.

Nicola Baker lectures in the Diplomacy and International Affairs Program at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. Her research interests encompass various aspects of the region’s geopolitics.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.