FIJI: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Australia and NZ silent as China bankrolls military junta
, May 2, 2009
Both Australia and New Zealand have been marginalised in Fiji, as China extends its influence there, writes Peter Westmore.Both Australia and New Zealand have refrained from criticising Beijing, as China embraces the military regime established after Fiji's President sacked the country's judges and suspended the constitution. The constitutional crisis erupted after Fiji's court of appeal had ruled the 2006 military takeover of Fiji was unconstitutional.
The Fiji Government faced economic difficulties following the global economic downturn, which has cut the number of visiting tourists. The tourism industry, one of the mainstays of Fiji's economy, was also adversely affected by flash floods earlier this year.
The recent coup and the appearance of soldiers in the streets have reduced the number of Australians and New Zealanders travelling to Fiji.
This has also impacted on the future of Fiji's domestic airline, Air Fiji, which has a vital role in transporting business travellers and tourists around the many islands which make up Fiji. Air Fiji's future is regarded as bleak.
A sign of the deepening economic crisis in Fiji was the military takeover of its own Reserve Bank, and the decision to devalue the currency by 20 per cent, to assist the tourism, mining and sugar industries.
The most alarming aspect of recent developments is that China has thrown its weight behind Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, while Australia and New Zealand are imposing further diplomatic sanctions on the Fiji government.
Chinese diplomats were present at the swearing-in of the new government by President Joseph Iloilo, and China has reportedly given Fiji $200 million in low-interest loans to help the government meet its financial obligations.
In 2006, Commodore Bainimarama had threatened to turn to China if Australia and New Zealand imposed sanctions on his government.
Fiji consists of about 300 islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, lying east of Queensland and north-east of New Zealand. Its population of one million is scattered across the islands. It was administered jointly by Britain, Australia and New Zealand until independence in 1970.
Fiji has suffered a number of military coups since 1987, when the Fiji army commander, Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, an ethnic Fijian, overthrew the Indian-led government which had recently been elected.
Further coups occurred in 2000 and 2006. Commodore Bainimarama led the 2006 coup, after accusing the elected government of Prime Minister Qarase of corruption and favouring indigenous Fijians.
One consequence of the political turmoil over the years is that many Indo-Fijians have departed the country. In the 1980s, the population of Fiji was almost evenly divided between ethnic Fijians and ethnic Indians, whose predecessors had come to Fiji to cut sugar-cane. Today, ethnic Fijians outnumber Indians by 3 to 2, and possibly 2 to 1.
While the Australian government has been talking of expelling Fiji from the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth, China has been quietly cementing its position as the dominant economic ally of the Bainimarama government.
Its $200 million loan is designed to preserve the Bainimarama government in power indefinitely.
At the same time, other prominent Pacific nations have quietly accepted the status quo in Fiji. Papua New Guinean diplomats were present at the swearing-in of the new government, and the Cook Islands' deputy prime minister, Maoate, told Radio NZ that Australian and New Zealand should be excluded from any talks with Fiji.
Australia's Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, has been vocal in condemning the 2007 coup in Fiji, but has remained completely silent as Beijing exploits the situation for its own purposes. The New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, who recently visited China, was equally coy.
When asked whether he would raise the situation in Fiji with China's Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, John Key replied cryptically, "Well-directed aid plays an important part in the Pacific and we are keen to work with the Chinese and others where it makes sense to co-ordinate that aid."
Asked later about reports that China was considering a further $300 million loan to Fiji, Mr Key descended into complete newspeak: "If we could work constructively with China when it comes to aid ... then I think we can add value and I think it can deliver better results for everybody," he said.
"In the end, though, China is an independent country and it is free to make commercial loans wherever it wants to; we can't stop that, nor would we try to."
In fact, both Australia and New Zealand have been utterly marginalised, as China extends its influence in the area. The high level of dependence of both the Australian and New Zealand economies on Chinese government-backed loans is clearly causing both countries to back off from any criticism of China's dollar diplomacy.
Recent events in Fiji show that Australia and New Zealand have become increasingly marginalised in their traditional sphere of influence in the Pacific island states, and have been utterly ineffective in preventing the expansion of Chinese influence.- Peter Westmore