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  • Steven Ratuva

The Fiji-China security deal: Will Fiji cancel it?

Updated: Jan 3

Despite campaign promises otherwise, re-defining the Fiji-China relationship is shaping up to be a fine balancing act that the Fijian government will have to continue to carry out in the near future.


Photo credits: FBC News

After the general elections in Fiji in 2022, the new coalition government of Sitiveni Rabuka promised to rescind the security agreement with China that was signed by Fiji’s previous government under Frank Bainimarama. In June, the Fiji government gave a six month notice to China declaring its intention to review the agreement. But is Fiji really going to totally withdraw from the agreement or is the situation too complex for Fiji to make a quick and easy decision, especially given China’s ability to readapt the circumstances in its favour?

  

China’s expansion into the Pacific region as part of its Belt and Road initiative has taken various forms including soft loans (framed as development aid), training, educational exchange and other “soft power’” means. Perhaps the most controversial has been its security agreements with Pacific Island states (PICs). The most recent was the agreement on “law enforcement and security matters” with the Solomon Islands signed on July 10, 2023 in Beijing. This bilateral security agreement was a change in tact from a regional multilateral strategy contained in the 2022 “China-Pacific Islands Common Development Vision” document, which the Pacific Island countries (PICs) pushed back on. The PICs preferred to sign individual bilateral agreements with China on various issues of cooperation and this they did by signing agreements ranging from economic development to crime prevention.


Fiji was the first country to sign a security agreement with China back on 18 April 2011. The “Areas of cooperation” under Article 1 of the agreement deal with a whole range of “security”-related issues such as arrest of fugitives and recovery of illicit money and goods; crackdown on terrorist activities and improvement of relevant information exchange; prevention and crackdown on economic crimes, especially money laundering; prevention and crackdown on drug-related crimes; prevention and crackdown on cybercrimes; crackdown on traffic in persons, illegal immigration and other related crimes; and other areas of law enforcement consented by the Parties


It appears that these would enable China to extend its law enforcement tentacles far and wide beyond its borders. Apart from the usual crime-related activities (money laundering, drug-related activities, etc), the provision on “crackdown on terrorist activities” could be used as justification to clampdown on political criticisms and dissent by Chinese diaspora. Part of the deal was to have Chinese police embedded within Fiji’s police structure.


Moreover, the agreement came into play with the arrest of a number of Chinese nationals in Fiji over the years since 2011. Perhaps the most significant one was the arrest and deportation of 77 Chinese nationals on 4 August 2017. They were accused of online scam worth millions of yuan and Chinese police officers were sent to Fiji to escort them back to China after months of joint operations between the Fiji and Chinese police. A week before this, 143 Chinese nationals were arrested and deported from Indonesia and 200 from Cambodia based on similar cyber fraud charges. It has been suggested that most of those arrested were young women involved in sex work in Fiji and the whole exercise may have been staged to send out a strong message that all Chinese anywhere in the world are within reach of the political tentacles of the Chinese Communist Party.


Since coming to power as Prime Minister, Rabuka was faced with the major decision regarding Fiji’s new foreign policy direction. The previous government of Bainimarama had engineered a “Look North” policy framework which saw a significant increase and deepening of Chinese economic, diplomatic, political and military relationship with Fiji. Rabuka opted to align Fiji closely with the traditional friends such as Australia, the US and New Zealand. Part of the process of shifting the centre of political gravity away from China is forging closer security engagement with Australia and New Zealand and scrapping the Fiji-China security deal. As part of the same process, Fiji signed a security agreement with New Zealand in June 2023. After taking office, Rabuka’s coalition government suspended the Commissioner of Police, Major General Sitiveni Qilio, who was part of the Fiji-China MOU (note that the suspension was not linked to the China-Fiji security deal).


The MOU itself was initially for five years and automatically extended for another five years successively if no party intended to terminate it. In other words, the MOU would have been automatically renewed 3 times from 2011 to 2023—the first renewal in 2016 and the second in 2021 which expires in 2026. In June, the Minister for Home Affairs and Immigration, Pio Tikoduadua, announced that the agreement was being reviewed and he had given China a six month notice of Fiji’s intention to have a fresh look at the agreement. This means that this notice expires around December.


China may have been watching all these developments with keen interest and perhaps anxiety too. So in response, China invited Rabuka for a meeting with Xi Jinping in July but Rabuka later turned down the invitation because of a tripping accident which left a scar on his head. The two eventually met in San Francisco during the APEC forum in November 2023 where the offer of China’s development of Fiji’s ports and shipbuilding industry was cemented. This new Chinese offer may have some influence on Fiji’s earlier commitment to totally withdraw from the security agreement with China as Fiji tries to weigh its options in relation to its national interests in the context of great power influence.         


The three possible options available to Fiji after the six months review of the agreement has lapsed are: firstly, withdraw entirely from the agreement and risk facing China’s full wrath (including withdrawal of the ports deal); secondly, continue until 2026 when the current MOU expires; and thirdly, do nothing about the MOU and continue as originally agreed even though this may not go down well with the US or Australia.


Any of these options could mean antagonizing either side. This is where Fiji needs to use smart, innovative and strategic diplomacy by courting all competition powers for all long as they serve Fiji’s interests. There is no harm in playing the double game of taking from both sides and not committing entirely to one camp. After all, that’s how politics have always been played by many Global South states.   


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.

 
Author

Steven Ratuva is the Pro-Vice Chancellor, Pacific as well as Distinguished Professor and Director of the Macmillan Brown Center for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury. He is Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and Chair of the International Political Science Association research committee on Climate Security and Planetary Politics. Steve is also member of a number of public boards including the Royal Society Te Apārangi, Climate Change Commission, Independent Accountability Group of the Human Rights Commission, and PBRF Sector Reference Group, to name a few.

 
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