SYDNEY, 10 OCTOBER 2019 — As Prime Minister Scott Morrison narrows his Pacific lens on Fiji, Beijing remains focused squarely in the background.
PM Morrison will travel to Suva on Friday for meetings with Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, ahead of historic rugby league matches between the two nations that evening.
Diplomatic relations have warmed in recent years after souring following Fiji’s 2006 coup, led by then-army head Bainimarama.
Morrison has focused on Fiji since gaining the top job, with a trip to Suva in January before hitting a climate change-sized road bump at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu.
The prime minister has sought to smooth tensions since then, with the leaders last month signing the Fiji-Australia Vuvale Partnership while Mr Bainimarama visited Canberra.
Despite signing the new agreement, the Fijian prime minister used his trip to urge the Morrison government to do more in the face of climate change and transition away from coal.
Vuvale is the Fijian word for “family”, which Morrison has stressed as a key part of his Pacific Step Up programme, to build closer ties between Australia and the Pacific.
Comparative politics expert Jon Fraenkel from the Victoria University of Wellington says the Pacific Step Up doesn’t exist in isolation from Beijing.
“The Step Up needs to almost entirely be read as a reaction to China’s presence in the region,” Professor Fraenkel told AAP.
“The focus is very narrowly on the strength of a bilateral arrangement, whereas previously there was more concern with risks associated with an authoritarian regime in the Pacific.”
It’s been an eventful few months in the region since the Pacific Islands Forum, where Bainimarama accused Morrison of being “very insulting and condescending” during negotiations to strengthen climate action in the region.
Since the August meeting, two Pacific nations have cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and opted for China.
Fiji has longstanding ties with Beijing, with China running a gold mine on the island and recently investing tens of millions towards two new jetties.
But Australia has recently inked a deal to help upgrade Fiji’s Blackrock military training camp in Nadi.
Pacific Step Up aims to highlight links between the Australia and its neighbouring islands, including through a love of sports such as rugby league.
Morrison and Bainimarama will play host in Suva on Friday night as their hand-picked men’s and women’s sides battle each other for the first time. (By Rebecca Gredley, AAP/PACNEWS)