China has taken Fiji’s side in its continuing standoff with Australia and NZ in dramatic fashion, startling the region’s diplomats with some very undiplomatic comments in Fiji’s defence. They didn’t come in an unnamed commentary in the Chinese media – where tough statements are usually code for what Beijing thinks – but from the mouth of the country’s second most powerful figure during a visit to Fiji. The comments of Wu Bangguo – the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People”s Congress and number two in the Communist Party hierarchy – signal a major geopolitical shift. China is now putting his mouth where its money has been for some time – providing soft loans to Fiji at generous interest rates of just two per cent. It is now sending a clear signal to Australia in particular – which derives most of its wealth from mineral exports to China – that the days of Fiji being stood over are at an end. China has forged a special relationship with Fiji, will strongly support it politically and economically and there’s nothing Canberra or Wellington can do about it except ruminate on the folly on their policy of exclusion in the first place.
Chairman Wu was careful in his public comments in Nadi not to refer to Australia and NZ by name. But his message was unmistakable. “We are opposed to the bullying of big regionally strong countries over the small or weak countries. The Chinese are opposed to the imposition of isolation by some countries over Fiji and China will continue to talk to relevant countries to engage in constructive and equal footing engagement and on the basis of equality and solidarity of differences”, he said. The message to Australia and NZ is blunt: Stop bullying Fiji. Stop isolating it. China will continue to try to persuade you to engage with Fiji in a constructive way and on an equal footing.
Right from the start, everything about Chairman Wu’s was big, starting with the plane that brought him. Using an Air China Boeing 747 jumbo jet for a relatively small delegation was clearly designed to impress. And impress it did, dwarfing the 737s around it at Nadi Airport and turning the beefy RFMF guard of honour into toy soldiers by comparison. The warmth of the welcome was unmistakable from both the President, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau and Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama. The business of diplomacy necessitates being friendly. But the Fiji Government is increasingly coming to regard China as a true friend as opposed to what it sees as the fair weather friends to the south. Chairman Wu and his wife were also beaming, clearly impressed by both the military and vaka turaga ceremonial welcomes and the chance to sample some of the sights around Nadi.
According to the Chairman, China-Fiji relations are characterised by mutual political trust and the two countries have an understanding and strong support of each other’s key interests and major concerns. “All countries, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor are all equal members of the international community”, Mr Wu said. In Fiji Government circles, the contrast between this attitude and what is seen as the punitive and petty attitude of Australia and NZ couldn’t be more stark.
Attitudes within government and the military are understood to have hardened significantly since Australia and NZ again thwarted Fiji’s re-admittance to the Pacific Forum at the leader’s summit in Rarotonga last month. After some clear signals that a thaw might be in the offing, Canberra and Wellington strong-armed the other island nations into maintaining Fiji’s suspension. The dismay in government is palpable. All this happened while half a million Fijian voters were trudging to registration centres to sign up for the promised election in 2014. Dozens of people have also been presenting submissions to hearings around the country of the Constitutional Commission. And Australia and NZ say Fiji hasn’t provided enough evidence that it is serious about returning to democracy?
Make no mistake, the resulting anger means that Fiji doesn’t really care about the Pacific Forum any longer. It regards it as beholden to the Aussies and Kiwis, who it thinks have turned some of the other island leaders into stooges, and is in no hurry to rejoin the once preeminent regional body. Fiji also no longer cares particularly about whether it remains suspended from the Commonwealth. The more that suspension also continues, the less reason there is for Fiji to remain a member.
The deep anger towards Australia intensified this week after the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) renewed its call for a tourist boycott of Fiji. It did so after Fiji asked an allegedly partisan delegation from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to leave the country until new terms of reference can be formulated for a new visit by another, less partisan delegation. The boycott call also came against the backdrop of a longstanding dispute between the Government and the Fiji Trades Union Congress, which it accuses of being dominated by “fat cats” stubbornly refusing to accept labour reform.
No-one familiar with the traditional argy bargy between reforming governments and trade unions doesn’t expect a fair degree of flak. But for the ACTU to call for a tourism boycott doesn’t hurt the Fiji Government but the jobs of vulnerable, decent, hardworking ordinary Fijians. Grubsheet will have more to say in the coming days about the appalling behaviour of the FTUC in launching action in the United States that threatens some 15-thousand jobs in 39 Fijian companies that export our goods to the American market. But to encourage a tourism boycott by Australians is the height of selfishness and irresponsibility on the part of the miserable Felix Anthony and Daniel Urai.
On the streets, no-one cares about their dispute with government. Go ahead and fight it but fight it fair. Don’t jeopardise the jobs of ordinary Fijians who don’t understand any of it and don’t care. Each day is a struggle to put food on the table, get the kids to school, stay sane and hope for a better life. Why should they be the pawns in a struggle to the death to protect union privileges?
The current widespread resentment towards Australia also includes yet another appalling demonstration of bias by the ABC and Radio Australia, the country’s public broadcaster. During the week, the ABC’s Pacific correspondent, Sean Dorney, did a story entitled “Horror Story a warning to Fiji visitors”. It was a heart wrenching yarn about what happened to a former Fiji resident, Clarissa Seeto, when her father got ill in Nadi, the family put him on a plane to Sydney and he died before he could get proper medical help. As the Permanent Secretary for Tourism, Elizabeth Powell, put it, no Fijian would not have been moved by the family’s pain at such a tragic event. But why was it a warning to Fiji visitors? There are adequate medical facilities in Nadi and even more adequate ones in Lautoka yet the family took a decision to place a very ill person on a four-hour flight to Sydney. Is Grubsheet being callous by pointing out that perhaps such a decision may have been unwise under the circumstances? Such incidents happen, people respond as best they can and Fiji naturally needs to do more to make sure there are protocols in place for such eventualities. But did the country deserve the battering it got for an unfortunate episode involving one family? Does the ABC report that the “horror story” of a visiting Irish teenager bashed in Kings Cross is a warning to Australian visitors? Of course it doesn’t.
This was yet another kicking from a Pacific correspondent who is on the record expressing upset that he continues to be banned from Fiji. Coming at the same time as the ACTU’s call for a tourist ban on Fiji, there was also an unseemly whiff of collusion between the ACTU and the ABC to “have a go” at the country, as the Aussies are fond of putting it. Seen separately, both the boycott call and the ABC’s “warning” to Australian visitors were a disgrace. Together, they look decidedly sinister. Fijians love ordinary Australians for their warm, unpretentious ways and their generosity of spirit. The bonds between the two peoples are indivisible and will outlast any union leader or politician. But right now, ordinary Fijians have ample cause to be deeply upset about their jobs being directly threatened by Australian unions and a public broadcaster with a history of bias against the country.