People’s Alliance leader hoping to return as Fiji’s prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, has ruled out a security pact with China if he wins government, saying it was time his country returned to its “comfortable niche” with Australia.
Rabuka has also flagged he will be asking Canberra for greater freedoms for Fijians working in Australia.
Rabuka made the comments in a wide-ranging interview with SBS News during a visit to Melbourne to drum up local community support for the upcoming election.
Rabuka said he did not believe Beijing would have “too much influence” in the Pacific region, citing the new Australian Labor government’s swift focus on the region since coming to power.
“The whiplash reaction that we have now had from Australia and New Zealand and further abroad in America, and the U.S. policies in the region are now changing because of that,” he said. “We are trying to just get back to the cordial international relationships we have had in the past, and that included our own relationship to China.”
“Now we have to reassess our associations and go back to those that have moulded the character of the nations in the western style of democracy, the British style of democracy and the British system. That’s the kind of democracy that we’re trying to emulate in the Pacific region.”
He would not be seeking a security pact with China – akin to the one inked by the Solomon Islands – if he wins in the upcoming election.
“We appreciate what China has done in the past. And that’s it,” Rabuka said, saying China had filled a void left by Australia following the 1987 coups. “The pendulum has now come back and we should now be getting to our comfortable niche with Australia and Australia should also acknowledge that, not only for Fiji but all the other Pacific Island territories.”
China to buy seaport and airstrip in Solomons
Meanwhile, a Chinese state-owned company is negotiating to buy a deep-water port and World War II airstrip in Solomon Islands, as new documents detail how money from Beijing has helped keep the Pacific nation’s controversial leader in power.
As a battle for influence plays out in the region, an investigation by Four Corners has found China is aggressively pursuing economic opportunities across the Solomons to boost Beijing’s strategic interests.
One asset being targeted by China is a hardwood forestry plantation on the island of Kolombangara, which features a protected harbour, deep-water port and an airstrip.
A delegation from the state-owned China Forestry Group Corporation visited the island in 2019 and, according to those present, showed little interest in the trees. Instead, one member of the group pointedly asked: “how long is the wharf and how deep is the water?”.
Since COVID-19 border restrictions lifted last month, talks have resumed.
Silas Tausinga, a Solomon Islands MP whose electorate sits next to Kolombangara, believes China’s ambition to house military assets in his country remains strong, despite months of high-level political and media attention.
“Absolutely, Australia should be worried about it,” he told Four Corners. This push is only possible because the Solomons severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of Beijing in 2019.
Documents obtained by Four Corners show a Chinese slush fund was activated twice last year and dispersed nearly $3 million(US$365,000) directly to members of parliament loyal to the Prime Minister.
One letter signed by Sogavare said the Chinese Embassy in Honiara “consented” to provide “additional support” for his government in August last year.
That was in the lead up to a vote of no confidence, which could have toppled the Prime Minister and undermined Beijing’s ambitions in the tiny Pacific nation.
Sogavare described the money as a “stimulus package” to revitalise the economy, although it was only given to MPs loyal to him. Opposition members received nothing.
“This is corruption,” said Ruth Liloqula, the head of Transparency International in Solomon Islands. “China is keeping this government together. We all assume that China is remotely controlling the government and Solomon Islands affairs.”