China Broadens Its Strategy in the South Pacific

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Guang Niu / AFP / Getty Images

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, right, greets Fiji's Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama in Beijing

Most Westerners think of the South Pacific island nation of Fiji as the place on the label of a somewhat high-end brand of bottled water. But to those looking beyond its exotic waterfalls and beaches, the country is hardly a tropical idyll. Tiny Fiji has been under military rule for almost four years. The press has been muzzled and its economy has slumped, hobbled, in part, by targeted sanctions set by regional neighbors Australia and New Zealand. With the restoration of democracy nowhere in sight, the country has grown into something of a pariah. In 2009, it was suspended from the Commonwealth — a poignant punishment for a former British colony where the royal family is still much loved.

But all is not lost for Voreqe Bainimarama, the military commander who toppled the ruling government in 2006 with promises to clean up corruption. Shunned by Fiji's traditional friends, Bainimarama's interim government has decided to look north to countries in Asia, particularly China. In a visit to Beijing and Shanghai in mid-August, he secured vital aid from the rising superpower as he lauded the efficiency of its authoritarian system. "[The Chinese] think outside the box," Bainimarama told reporters. "What they want to do they do, [and] they are visionary in what they do."

It's no longer surprising for a politician unpopular in the West to turn to Beijing for support. In recent years, China has deepened its links with an array of autocratic leaders and military dictatorships, including the secretive junta in Burma; Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe (recently seen on a Hong Kong shopping trip); and Sudanese Prime Minister Omar Hassan al-Bashir, wanted for war crimes by an international tribunal in the Hague. To be sure, Beijing's ever growing standing in world affairs — and its thirst for natural resources — necessitates some of these contacts. Richard Herr, a professor at Fiji National University, doubts Chinese strategists would want to directly antagonize a country like Australia over its dealings with a small South Pacific isle. "But if ripe fruit falls into [Beijing's] lap," says Herr, gesturing to Bainimarama's courtship of the Chinese, "it won't reject it."

China has been steadily expanding its influence throughout the South Pacific. Last week, the fledgling government of East Timor announced that Beijing would be building the country's new multimillion-dollar defense headquarters. East Timor has also acquired Chinese patrol boats and may enlist Beijing's help in future training of its ragtag military. China's extensive footprint in Papua New Guinea has been well documented and, in Vanuatu, China constructed the headquarters of the evocatively named Melanesian Spearhead Group, a regional body of island states that includes all of the above as well as Fiji and the Solomon Islands. Rodger Baker, Asia-Pacific analyst for Stratfor, a global intelligence company, says the seeds of a larger geopolitical strategy may have been planted.

Talk of Chinese-manned listening posts may be premature, especially when considering the far greater scale of involvement Australia and New Zealand still have in these countries. But it's one more sign of a slow shift in the Pacific's status quo as China elbows for room in waters long kept calm by the U.S. and its allies. A much discussed 2009 defense white paper by the Australian government spotlighted Beijing's naval expansion as a strategic concern in the long-term, with China's increasing ability to project its power across the region furrowing brows in Australian policy circles. "If China starts [its activities] from Port Moresby, it's a whole lot different than starting from Hainan Island," says Baker, referring to the capital of Papua New Guinea and the southern Chinese province where Beijing is building up its submarine fleet.

Yet, in other respects, the challenge China poses is less strategic than ideological. A string of recent books by Western Asia hands has warned ominously of the toppling of the liberal global order — When China Rules the World, as one title goes. Stefan Halper's The Beijing Consensus: How China's Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century argues that the appeal of China's example — which sees "rapid economic growth, stability, and security, but not freedom in the public square" — will nudge many developing countries away from democratic politics. This is already on view in some African and Central Asian states close to Beijing, but the Chinese publicly disavow any intent to impose their system on the world. Still, says Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., "outside of official conversations, Chinese scholars at state think tanks and universities are really quite excited" about the ground their politics is gaining internationally.

It's too soon to tell whether Fiji will fall under such a spell. Despite Bainimarama's gushing statements while in China, he remains committed in word to democratic reform, though elections have been deferred till 2014. Concrete signs of progress have been few, says Gerard Finin, an expert on the Pacific at the East-West Center in Hawaii. "Some prominent intellectuals have been exiled and the promises made for change have turned out to be fairly vacuous," he says. Fiji's Great Council of Chiefs, one of the country's leading societal institutions, has been dismantled. But Herr, who at one time served as an adviser to Bainimarama's interim government, says the regime has been at the receiving end of heavy-handed treatment from Canberra and Wellington. Fiji has seen four coups d'état since 1987 and Bainimarama has repeatedly framed his efforts as the first cautious steps toward the restoration of a stable and effective parliamentary democracy.

Glaser at CSIS reckons the supposed allure of the "Beijing Consensus" and China's soft power — which, in the South Pacific, amounts to distributing money for political leverage — is overhyped. "Not a lot of countries in the world could implement China's model and find that it works," she says. "I prefer a definition of soft power that is about what a country is attracted to, not what a government actively promotes." And while China's influence grows, in many instances it has yet to find enduring connections with some of its new partners. Bainimarama may be alienated and backed into a corner by the West, but, to this day, there reportedly hangs by his desk a portrait of the British Queen.