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China Railway employee Georgina Matilda regards the country favourably. Photo: AP

Chinese investments boost Fiji ties as Beijing seeks major Pacific deal

  • Foreign Minister Wang Yi is touring the South Pacific amid growing international concern about Beijing’s plans for the region
  • Federated States of Micronesia pushes back at plans, warning it will heighten geopolitical instability

For Georgina Matilda, working for Chinese infrastructure company China Railway means that she can put food on the table for her children.

Like many Fijians, Matilda sees a benefit in foreign investment wherever it comes from, so long as it uplifts the people.

President of Fiji, Ratu Wiliame Katonivere (left) watches as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi signs the visitors book at the State House in Suva. Photo: AP

“I think Chinese is good coming in Fiji,” said another Fijian, Miliane Rokolita. “They bring us bigger houses. They bring money in Fiji. They’re good people.”

The welcoming attitude by many in Fiji and elsewhere in the South Pacific comes as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sweeps through on an island-hopping tour amid growing international concerns about Beijing’s military and financial ambitions in the region.

On Monday, Wang hosts a key meeting in Fiji with foreign ministers from 10 Pacific nations he hopes will endorse a sweeping new agreement covering everything from security to fisheries.

But some nations are pushing back. David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, has told other leaders he will not endorse the plan, warning them in a letter that it would needlessly heighten geopolitical tensions and threaten regional stability.

Panuelo called it “the single most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes” and said it “threatens to bring a new cold war era at best, and a world war at worst”.

A draft of the agreement obtained by Associated Press shows that China wants to train Pacific police officers, team up on “traditional and non-traditional security” and expand law enforcement cooperation.

US views on China ‘gone seriously awry’, foreign minister Wang Yi warns

China also wants to jointly develop a marine plan for fisheries – which would include the Pacific’s lucrative tuna catch – increase cooperation on running the region’s internet networks, and set up cultural Confucius Institutes and classrooms. China also mentions the possibility of setting up a free trade area with the Pacific nations.

In Fiji, the economy was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. The vital tourism industry shut down overnight and GDP shrank by more than 15 per cent. As the world reopens, Fiji is trying to bounce back, and many are happy to see China write the cheques.


Chinese foreign minister starts Pacific tour, offering security and free trade pacts

Chinese foreign minister starts Pacific tour, offering security and free trade pacts

China’s involvement in the region does not come completely out of the blue. There has been a long history of Chinese immigration in Fiji, with many Chinese Fijians running corner stores and other businesses.

“There’s a good side and a bad side,” said Nora Nabukete, a student at the University of the South Pacific. “We get more money into the economy, being pumped in and stuff, but then there’s also a side where they bring in a lot of new things that are new to the Fijian culture.”

Nabukete worries about the seedier side that has been associated with Chinese investment in Fiji – a supposed influx of gambling, gangs and drugs.

Samoa signs pact for ‘greater collaboration’ with China as Wang Yi tours Pacific

She said that aligning with China could mean that Fiji created tension with the United States and other Western nations, and for that reason, she hoped that Fiji did not endorse Wang’s agreement.

“There’s so much more to lose in the future than what we’re experiencing now if Fiji does sign,” she said.