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Pacific Islands Society

PO Box 632 | Ebensburg, PA 15931 | USA


843.271.6891 ph pacificislandssociety.org web
Domestic Non-Profit Organization
Whats at Stake in Fiji for
Australia, China, and the United
States
By Mr. Michael Edward Walsh & Mr. Fergus Hanson
Published: March 13, 2012

For more than two decades, Fiji has endured
one coup after another. During the latest one,
Commodore Frank Bainimarama overthrew
Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's duly elected
but troubled government. Since then, Australia
has tried to coerce Fiji back to democracy. The
regime's failure to return to the polls, has led to
Fiji's suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum
and the Commonwealth. But, these actions
have not led to a completely united approach,
even in the West. To date, Bainimarama's
tactics have provoked differing levels of outrage
among the regional players, particularly
Australia, China, and the United States. Their
varying approaches will not only shape their
ongoing interactions with the Bainimarama
regime but also could affect long-term strategic
interests in the South Pacific.
Positions of Regional Powers
Since the 2006 coup, Australia has taken the
most uncompromising positions on
Bainimarama. Working vigorously to isolate the
regime and enforce sanctions until there are
"credible signs" of a return to free elections,
Australia has imposed strong sanctions,
including suspension of ministerial contact and
defense cooperation, an arms embargo, and
visa restrictions.

China was once at the other extreme. In the
immediate wake of the coup, paranoid that Fiji
would move to recognize diplomatic rival
Taiwan, China stepped in with promises of over
$150 million in aid. However, with time and a
diplomatic truce with Taiwan, China realized this
fear was overblown and that its reaction was
putting strain on its much more important
relationship with Australia as well as the United
States. China then delayed the rollout of its aid
pledges and cut back on cash donations --
suggesting that Fiji's China card is itself
overblown. That said, China remains the
strongest supporter of the regime among the
regional powers.
For the United States's part, while it has hewn
closer its ANZUS partners than China, U.S.
diplomats have tried to forge something of a
middle ground by adopting a less
uncompromising approach to sanctions and
generally look for areas -- like crisis response
and human trafficking -- through which to
engage Fiji. This has been welcomed by the
current regime, that has argued the United
States could play a leading role in facilitating
the country's return to a democratic government
as a result.
Possible Outcomes
So, what are the strategic implications for these
positions on the respective powers? To a large
extent, this depends on whether Bainimarama is
who he says he is or not. The decisions the
regime makes in the next three years will
provide the answer. Reflecting the uncertainty
surrounding Fiji's future course, at present, four
scenarios appear most likely.


Commentary
Pacific Islands Society | Commentary | March 13, 2012
Stable Western Style Democracy: A stable
democracy could take hold if Commodore
Bainimarama succeeds in the reforms that he
claims to champion. This would require
implementing strong social and economic
policies which would mitigate the deep racial
cleavages which have divided Fiji for decades.
It also would require a concerted effort to
reconcile political interest groups who were
positively and negatively impacted by the coup.
Finally, it would require the drafting of a
constitution that would garner cross-spectrum
support and the holding of free and fair
elections that would bring an end to the coup.
This latter goal received a positive, if small,
boost last week with the announcement of a
'comprehensive consultation process on the
new constitution'.

Stable Guided Democracy: Given Fiji's serious
political, economic, and social divisions,
Bainimarama's rejection of Western-style
democracy should not be ruled out. Instead, his
regime could oversee a form of guided
democracy. In this scenario, the regime would
maintain de facto control over Fiji's politics and
the media through the use of coercive military-
backed tactics to ensure elected politicians and
the media remain compliant with military
interests. Unlike autocracy, guided democracy
would be notionally legitimized through
elections, but if the unofficial compact
unraveled, would result in another military coup
to restore the status quo.

Unstable Democracy: An unstable democracy
could take hold if Commodore Bainimarama
follows through on his commitment to restore
democracy but fails in the reforms that he
claims to champion. Under this scenario, the
regime fails to effectively implement the social
and economic policies that might mitigate the
deep racial cleavages which have divided Fiji.
There also likely would be no reconciliation of
political interest groups. In the end, the
elections would be held but the country would
soon face yet another coup.

Autocracy: An autocracy could take hold if
Commodore Bainimarama is not sincere in the
reforms that he claims to champion and/or
realizes he will be unable to implement his
reform agenda. In this scenario, Bainimarama
would use the run-up to elections to consolidate
his political power and silence his opposition.
When completed, he would abandon the
premise of free and fair elections and remove
any existing legal or legislative checks on his
regime's powers.

Strategi c Impl i cati ons

While politicians may claim to know what path
Bainimarama will choose, the history of the
2006 coup has yet to be fully written. For this
reason, it is valuable to shift the discussion, at
least for the moment, away from "What will
Bainimarama choose?" to "What impact will
each of the probable outcomes have on the
strategic interests of the regional players?"

Stable Western Style Democracy: If Fiji holds
reasonably free elections in 2014 under a
constitution that removes racial biases and
ensures political competition, all sides will likely
claim vindication for their respective Fiji
policies. In the short-term, tensions might
remain raw between Fiji and Australia as
Bainimarama (likely still in power) could argue
that he was slandered while Australia could
claim their sanctions succeeded in pressuring
the Commodore into adhering to democratic
reform. However, in their national interests, the
long-simmering controversy would likely die
down quickly as the two democracies push to
normalize relations. In the meantime, as non-
parties to this intra-Oceanic bickering, the
United States and China would find themselves
with clean hands from which to more
aggressively pursue their national interests in
the South Pacific.

Stable Guided Democracy: If Fiji pursues
Turkish-style guided democracy, Australia
might find itself wedged and its position
weakened in the South Pacific. The government
in Canberra has been so uncompromising and
taken such strong public positions that it would
be very hard for it to accept managed
democracy in lieu of liberal democracy.
Conversely, the United States and China would
be better positioned to accept a stable
Pacific Islands Society | Commentary | March 13, 2012
Pacific Islands Society
PO Box 632 | Ebensburg, PA 15931 | USA
843.271.6891 ph pacificislandssociety.org web
Domestic Non-Profit Organization
managed democracy and to capitalize on such
moves by the regime.

Unstable Democracy: According to James
Clad, a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary
of Defense, an unstable democracy marred by
race-based politics and possible conflict would
present "the most headaches for Australian
foreign policy." In essence, this is the nightmare
scenario for Australia because they have
secured the free and fair elections that they
have demanded since 2006 but the entire
premise of Bainimarama's anti-democratic
efforts are validated. In this scenario, the United
States and China would be in a far better
position to advance their strategic interests in
the region in the aftermath of the crisis.

Autocracy: If Bainimarama instead treads down
the well-worn path of entrenching his
dictatorship, deeper fractures may begin to
emerge. Australia probably will feel vindicated
in its harsher position. Arguing that
Bainimarama is a megalomaniac whose
ambitions are antithetical to democracy, their
calls for regime change could strengthen. This
likely would force the United States to abandon
its current policy preferences and fall in line
with its ANZUS partners. As a consequence, Fiji
probably would attempt to reach out to China, a
move that would likely be futile however,
because of Chinese concerns about
undermining more important economic relations
with Australia.

So which country's position is going to be
vindicated? That depends who you ask. And,
truth be told, no one knows for certain except
the Commodore.


Michael Edward Walsh is the President of the
Pacific Islands Society

Fergus Hanson is the Director of Polling and
Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute in
Australia.

The views expressed are those of the authors.