The diplomatic spat surrounding China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhaoxu’s visit to Suva in April 2023 captured shifting geostrategic developments in Fiji.
Ma’s meeting with Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka was cancelled due to a bereavement in Rabuka’s family. Deputy Prime Minister Manoa Kamikamica was instead put forward to meet with Ma. Chinese officials initially rejected the proposition, insisting that Ma would only meet with the Fijian Prime Minister. Ma’s visit was ostensibly to deliver a message directly to Rabuka about the importance of ‘treading carefully on Taiwan’ and respecting Beijing’s ‘red line’.
The episode reflected growing tensions between China and Fiji. Under its new coalition government, Fiji is showing signs of greater alignment on security matters with its traditional partners — Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Rabuka is appearing to tilt Fiji away from his predecessor’s approach of ‘friends to all, enemies to none’. Rabuka even went as far as to suggest that this approach, taken by some Pacific nations, should be reconsidered. Fiji’s friends are watching closely.
Early signs of Fiji’s dismantling of its security relationship with China began under former prime minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama. Bainimarama was concerned about the regional implications of last year’s Solomon Islands–China Framework Agreement on Security Cooperation and Beijing’s proposed — and rejected — multilateral security and trade pact.
But in previous years, security cooperation between Fiji and China had been deepening significantly. In 2011, Fiji’s Ministry of Defence, National Security and Immigration and China’s Ministry of Public Security signed the now obsolete policing cooperation memorandum of understanding (MOU). This was thrown out by Rabuka earlier in 2023.
The MOU is worth considering for what it reveals about security cooperation and strategic autonomy in the Pacific. The MOU focussed on bilateral cooperation to address transnational crime, intelligence exchanges, police capacity-building and technology and equipment exchanges.
Numerous security cooperation activities fell under the MOU’s remit. These included China’s secondment of four officers to Fiji and two Fijian officers were attached to the Guangzhou Bureau for Public Security in 2014. Fijian police attended courses in China that year. China donated roughly AU$654,000 worth of vehicles, communication, surveillance and anti-riot equipment to support Fiji’s 2014 elections.
The 2011 MOU provided the bilateral framework for enhanced operational capabilities and cooperation including, in 2016, efforts to acquire Chinese drones. In 2017, this culminated in a joint operation between Fiji and China, which saw several hundred Chinese police arrive in Fiji to arrest and deport 77 Chinese nationals. In 2021, a Chinese Police Liaison officer was based in Fiji — signalling China’s shift towards a more networked approach to security in the region.
Fast forward to Fiji’s election in December 2022. Sandra Tarte argues Rabuka already signalled his discomfort with China’s involvement in Fiji’s affairs. Rabuka’s coalition member, the National Federation Party, made an oblique reference to reducing dependence on China in 2018. The then leader of another coalition member, the Social Democratic Liberal Party, Viliame Gavoka, stated he wanted Fiji’s foreign relations to be closely aligned with Australia and New Zealand.
Members of Fiji’s new government were quick to signal Fiji’s geopolitical shift. Deputy Prime Minister Viliame Gavoka and Minister for Home Affairs Pio Tikoduadua tweeted their respective meetings with Taiwan’s representative in Fiji. In March 2023, Fiji reinstated the Taiwanese mission’s name to Trade Mission of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to Fiji, after it was downgraded in 2018 to Taipei Trade Office.
In January 2023, Rabuka terminated Fiji’s policing MOU with China. He stated there was no need for Chinese state security personnel to continue working in the Fiji Police Force. This, coupled with Rabuka’s public support for AUKUS — a surprising move given strong regional criticism of the arrangement — signals a shift towards overt strategic alignment with Australia and the United States. It is less clear how Fiji will reconcile this shift with its foreign policy stance of ‘friends to all, enemies to none’ and its membership of the Non-Aligned Movement.
A key question is whether Fiji’s strategy of balancing its security and economic priorities can withstand both coalition politics and regional calls to take a firm line against the militarisation of the Pacific. This is notable considering concerns that AUKUS goes against the Pacific’s principal nuclear non-proliferation agreement, the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga. As a member of the sub-regional bloc, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), questions surround how Fiji will reconcile its stance on China with potential Chinese security assistance negotiated under the MSG Regional Security Strategy.
The coalition government’s rejection of China as a security partner disrupts China’s growing role as a security stakeholder in the Pacific. It also challenges China’s approach to security assistance, including raising questions about China’s credibility as a security partner and presenting an obstacle to China’s pursuit of a multilateral security pact. In the case of Fiji, China was focused on enforcing Chinese law against its diaspora with little demonstrated interest in assisting regional efforts to combat transnational crime. This leads to critical areas becoming siloed and lacking oversight and coordination.
While the coalition government supports a shift in security policy, it would be a mistake to assume this extends to undermining Fiji’s broader bilateral relationship with China. Rabuka has reaffirmed Fiji’s One China policy and called for China to play the role of ‘development partner’. Fiji’s new geopolitical tilt is a testament to the ways in which Pacific states — who are increasingly concerned that the pursuit of national interest and strategic choice is under threat — seek to balance against strategic competition.
Source: East Asia Forum
Jose Sousa-Santos is a Senior Fellow at the Australia Pacific Security College, The Australian National University.
Anna Powles is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University.