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People’s Republic of China stay out of Fiji now!!!

December 1, 2009

 

Pressure on Fiji fails as China lends hand

PAUL MCGEOUGH

December 1, 2009

In a very laid-back, South Pacific way, the military dictator Commodore ”Frank” Voreqe Bainimarama and his islands nation conjure visions of the young Fidel Castro and Cuba. If Suva is Havana in this Cold War redux, Canberra and Wellington channel 1960s Washington; Beijing is the new Moscow.

Despite Bainimarama’s emasculation of their civil rights, Fijians have opted to get on with their lives with barely a whimper. But among those who oppose the regime, there is a sense of injury that the rest of the world has not done enough to restore their democracy.

Washington is building a $17.5 million embassy complex on the ridge behind the capital’s central business district. But senior figures from the government deposed by Bainimarama in 2006, none of whom will be named, complain that the American diplomatic presence is near invisible.

“Barack Obama has declared himself to be the first Pacific president of the US, but Washington doesn’t act unless people kick up a fuss,” a senior member of the sacked government said. “The Americans have no influence here; they don’t care.”

In the absence of a Cold War dynamic, he understands the Cuba analogy cannot stand up, but he gives it a go: “I can’t say that Fiji is Beijing’s Cuba – but it’s something along those lines. This is something that should concern Washington and Canberra and they should do something about it.”

China also is building a lavish new mission on the waterfront, near the presidential palace, also away from the CBD. But China’s presence is acutely felt and, in some quarters, resented.

Chinese trade with the region generally has exploded in the past decade. And in the two years after Bainimarama’s overthrow of the elected Qarase government, Beijing’s aid to Suva has increased more than sevenfold, to more than $177 million, says a report by the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

China’s aid takes the form of grants, soft loans. Two weeks ago, Fiji’s ambassador to Beijing announced a $135 million loan to Fiji, and the introduction of direct flights from Hong Kong this month is expected to boost tourism.

Beijing support for the $70 million-plus Nadarivatu Hydropower project is typical of the Chinese aid packages that irk ordinary Fijians. They are grateful for the power plant being built in the mountainous north of the main island, Viti Levu, but angered that virtually the entire workforce and supplies are sourced from China – “down to the last wheelbarrow”, a local observer said .

Earlier this year, Fijian immigration authorities announced that permits had been issued for about 300 Chinese workers for the project, which is managed by the Sinohydro Corporation.

“It was the same on a recent road-building project,” said Netani Rika, the editor-in-chief of the Fiji Times. “The advisers were Chinese; the work crews were Chinese; the trucks were Chinese. There is a benefit at the end – the locals got the road – but very little of the preparation or construction phases comes to Fijians.”

Bainimarama turned to Beijing for support after he was spurned by Canberra and Wellington. But despite the surge in Chinese aid, a Western diplomat in Suva told the Herald: “China is not undercutting the policies of other countries and it’s not propping up a regime that otherwise would collapse.”

Beijing insists that its foreign aid is given with no strings attached. But it is driven by a need to shore up Fiji’s vote at the United Nations for its one-China policy – a sensitive issue because of the presence in Suva of a Taiwanese trade office.

Local claims that China wished to base some of its naval fleet in Fiji and had initiated talks with the regime were dismissed by a senior Western diplomat as ”fanciful”.

But the extent of Beijing’s support – which also includes high-level official visits; trade and research delegations – gives Bainimarama bragging rights and a sense of a powerful ally at a time when he is a target of condemnation from other capitals.

Targeted international sanctions by Australia, New Zealand and the European Union have inflicted only limited pain, and Fiji’s tourism-driven economy could limp on for years before the regime was made to suffer sufficiently to change its ways.

The EU has put a $45 million aid package for the troubled Fijian sugar industry on hold. And leading the diplomatic campaign against the regime, Canberra and Wellington are refusing entry visas to members of the regime, their supporters, senior officials, and members of the military, and, in some cases, members of their families. Ministerial contact and defence co-operation have been frozen and an arms embargo is in force.

Relations between Australia and New Zealand and Fiji reached a new low early last month when each ordered the other’s high commissioners to pack up and go home in a row over claimed interference in the Fijian judiciary.

But the seeming indifference of Fijians to their own plight puts a question mark over the Rudd Government’s harsh pro-democracy rhetoric and the sanctions it has imposed. International absolutes on human rights collide head-on with the local political reality. Democracy in Fiji has always been a veneer; even a joke.

Canberra’s sanctions are intended to hurt the regime, not the people of Fiji who receive Australian aid worth about $27 million last year.

On the urging of Australia and New Zealand, Fiji’s membership of the South Pacific Forum and the Commonwealth has been suspended.

But its rhetoric and its diplomatic efforts to squeeze the regime further have failed. Australian tourism to Fiji is surging; China is maintaining its aid program, despite representations from Canberra; and the United Nations ignored Canberra’s appeals for it to cease using Fijian troops in its peace-keeping operations around the world.

“They are not isolated,” a Western diplomat said of the regime. “There are no trade sanctions and they still have economic ties in the region. The EU was willing to meet Bainimarama last month and an IMF team is in town this week.”

In Suva there is a consensus among local critics and supporters of the regime, and among foreign diplomats, that international pressure will not make Bainimarama change his policies or his timetable.

The Fiji Times’s Rika agrees that Canberra is ”pissing in the wind”. He said Australia and New Zealand might have been more successful had they done more, as Fiji lurched from one coup to the next in the last 20-plus years, to ensure that Fijians understood the difference between democracy “and the form of government we have had for the last 40 years”.

“It’s one thing to jump up and down now, but Canberra’s silence about the failings of the notionally democratic governments we have had is a sign of its complicity in the problems we face,” Rika said.

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