Commentary – By Professor Wadan Narsey
When it comes to Fiji affairs, the international media usually focus on what Australia and New Zealand think.
Thus when the Fiji regime recently created a political crisis by rejected the Draft Constitution devised by its own Yash Ghai Commission, Jenny Hayward-Jones, in her article (The Interpreter, 11 January 2013) noted “despite this setback, international actors including Australia should continue to press for progress in re-establishing democracy in Fiji and engage where they can to maintain momentum in the process”.
But the dialogue needs to also include the two “elephants in the room”- China and India- whose critical support for Fiji’s military regime has arguably undermined the diplomatic stances and sanctions imposed by Australia, NZ and the EU. (See my analysis of the regime’s rejection of the Ghai Draft Constitution).
While observers were surprised that India, the world’s largest democracy, so readily supported the 2006 military coup in Fiji, perhaps relevant was the regime’s claim that it wished to protect the people of Indian descent from unfair domination by the indigenous Fijian majority.
This was reinforced when the largely Indo-Fijian Fiji Labour Party (led by Mahendra Chaudhry) quickly joined the regime in 2007. Chaudhry was ejected after a year.
However, India’s major contribution to the regime, the large ExIm Bank of India loan to upgrade the milling efficiency of the Fiji Sugar Corporation, has backfired.
The loan proceeds did not lead to any increase in milling efficiency, partly because of inept sub-contracting at the Indian end and technical inefficiencies at the Fiji end.
The sugar industry continues its slump for other reasons as well, and India is under pressure from Fiji to convert that loan into a grant.
Perhaps as a face-saving device, India also recently supported Fiji’s chairmanship of the International Sugar Organisation for 2013, a symbolic role used as great propaganda by the Bainimarama regime.
India is aware of the regime’s media censorship, denial of basic human rights, and its reneging on its promise to hold elections in 2009. Now they see the regime back-tracking on its own constitution review.
India has to worry that its continued support of the regime may bring negative consequences from a future elected Fiji government.
China’s support for the Fiji Regime does not pose any great dilemma for political analysts: China does not share the West’s belief in full democratic rights for its own people, or a free media, or other basic human rights being denied in Fiji.
With China becoming an economic Super-Power which “saved” the West from the global financial crisis and continues to save it from outright recession, it can afford to disregard international opinion, as it does over devastated Syria.
But, like the US, as Chinese imperialism matures, China’s foreign policy will eventually have to pay greater heed to good governance, human rights, and environmental issues.
Note that Chinese investments in Fiji are relatively minor compared to their economic interests in Australia, NZ, PNG, East Timor and West Papua.
China’s aid/loan programme to Fiji has resulted in many infrastructure developments which will be of significant economic value, when the economy grows.
But Fiji’s economy has totally stagnated under the military regime for six years, with declining real incomes, increasing poverty, and rising public debt – while other Pacific economies have prospered.
China’s unqualified support of the Fiji regime arguably undermines the diplomatic stance of Australia and NZ, who have a legitimate interest in discouraging unlawful regimes and political instability in the Pacific Island countries.
A Fiji regime that keeps breaking its commitments, and tries to hang on to power, regardless of the economic and social costs to its own people, is not in China’s long term interests in Fiji.
Super power roundtable?
One of the weaknesses of international diplomacy in the Pacific is that the traditional powers (Australia, NZ, US, Britain, EU and Japan) have tended to exclude China and India as equal multilateral dialogue partners, as they did at a 2011 meeting called at PIDP in Honolulu, Hawaii.
This may partly be due to historical and cultural reasons, and partly because the emerging super-power rivalry sees it as a zero-sum game in the Pacific. This does not help countries like Fiji.
Fiji’s people would benefit if Australia, NZ, US, EU, and Japan were to engage in a diplomatic round table dialogue with China and India for a more “Pacific” solution to the ongoing crisis.
Professor Wadan Narsey is a Fiji academic and analyst and adjunct professor at James Cook University.