China’s Fiji funding signals growing presence in South Pacific

The base housed Chinese state-owned company workers when they built roads all down this remote northern part of Fiji between 2011 and 2015. When Cyclone Yasa hit in 2020, the Chinese-built primary school in Lekutu sheltered the villagers. After the category-five storm passed it was one of the few buildings left standing. Down the road, the secondary school was wiped out.

“It was pretty flattened,” says Australian Army Captain Brenton Cathie who is overseeing the construction of the new school. “We’re still in the rebuild phase at the moment, but we’re almost there. We’re doing the finishing stages.”

Army Captain Brenton Cathie in the Lekutu Secondary School Australia is helping to build.Credit:Joe Armao

The two 30-metre classrooms have been built in 60 days. When finished, the secondary school will accommodate 250 students. It will not only be the main school for Lekutu but also for many of the remote islands off the coast that send their children to board here.

“When the old school was destroyed some of the students felt like someone had died,” says the school manager Ovini Baleinamau. “Every day they would eat there and sleep there. When they saw it had been hit by the cyclone they cried.”

Like many locals and leaders, Baleinamau wants China and Australia to keep competing in Fiji.

“It’s better for our development,” he says. “There is more money.”

But elsewhere Chinese over-development and commercial assertiveness has created an enduring legacy of distrust and anger in some communities.

The Deo family lives in Dreketi, about 90 kilometres outside the provincial capital Labasa. Next door to their farm, a Chinese state-backed mine digs tonnes of bauxite – a main source of aluminium – out of the ground.

Nar Deo, with his family in the Muanidevo settlement, Dreketi.  Dust from the Chinese owned Aurum Exploration, bauxite mine is constantly causing them health issues.

Nar Deo, with his family in the Muanidevo settlement, Dreketi. Dust from the Chinese owned Aurum Exploration, bauxite mine is constantly causing them health issues.Credit:Joe Armao

The air is thick with the smell of chemicals. The red dirt from the mine site runs down the river valley through their property and hangs in the air over their crops, killing them before they are harvested.

“It is a big problem,” says Nar Deo. The 40-year-old has lived here with his family for decades, now three generations are under the same roof – including his three young children who are all having breathing problems. “Every day the dust settles.”

The mine does not employ any locals, says Deo, but has now thrown up so much dust and bauxite that dozens of children at the local school are having the same breathing difficulties while their parents are struggling to put food on the table.

“It is not right,” he says.

In Sigatoka, central Fiji, another Chinese company has been trying to mine dark mineral sand for export back to China. To do it they wanted to take over an island off the coastal town. The proposal has split the community.

“The Chinese came in and they offered only one side of the village to get the whole thing and they wanted to sell because the village is desperate for money,” says local homeowner Angeline Lalabalavu.

Angeline Lalaballavu at home in  at Olosara beach, Sigatoka, Fiji.

Angeline Lalaballavu at home in at Olosara beach, Sigatoka, Fiji.Credit:Joe Armao

“So there’s part of the village that feels like it wants to have the investment from the mining and this part of the village that does not.”

Her son, Ratu Naiqana Lalabalavu, says the company had already collected large samples of minerals. “It was a shitload, so they offered them quite a few million [dollars].”

But the island is also at a key entry point to the Sigatoka river, sparking resistance from locals worried about the environmental impacts of further mining. The impacts are already being felt as mining, dredging and climate change combine to deplete fishing stocks.

The company’s tactics are more reflective of some sharper edges of China’s diplomacy in the region: large ambitions and big wallets are often accompanied by demands that deals be settled quickly. The approach can split communities and Pacific leaders.

In Suva this week, at the Pacific Island Forum leaders’ meeting, climate change was the dominant topic of discussion. China’s geopolitical ambitions also loomed large given the Solomon Islands’ first security deal with Beijing in April, and China’s failed push for a Pacific-wide economic and security pact in May.

Chinese-owned Aurum Exploration bauxite mine at Nabulu in Dreketi, Fiji.

Chinese-owned Aurum Exploration bauxite mine at Nabulu in Dreketi, Fiji.Credit:Joe Armao

“There is a distinct difference with the approach that was taken by China through their foreign minister when he came here a couple of months ago,” said Henry Puna, the secretary-general of the forum .

“They came here with their own prepared outcomes document. And it was that that our members have reacted against. Because the thing is if anybody knows what we want, what we need and what our priorities are, it’s not other people, it is us.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had failed to consider what Dr Paula Vivill, the deputy director general of the Pacific community called “Pacific time”. The phrase is a useful shorthand for the slower pace of life in the region, but it also points to a wider need to consult, to dialogue, to “talanoa”.

“In Fiji they call it Fiji Time. In Tonga, it’s Tonga Time. When you ask the elders, they say: it’s Pacific Time,” he says. “Because people are more important than programs. Veirokorokovi, Veiwaraki. Veikauwaitaki. [Be respectful, wait for each other, care for each other].”

For that same reason, the Pacific had grown wary of Australia until this year. The Coalition had become known for digging in its heals during negotiations and calling for concessions over key issues – particularly on climate change. The last time the prime minister Scott Morrison attended the forum, in 2019, his Fijian counterpart, Frank Bainimarama, said he would be better off dealing with China.

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It was the culmination of years of frustration that would eventually help steer the Solomons towards Beijing, with Kiribati the next nation most likely to follow. The Pacific leaders also saw an understandable economic opportunity for their people – by forging closer economic ties with China they could maximise their returns from other governments – including Australia and the United States.

In the last few decades, Australia’s history in the region has been described as “overseeing and overlooking”.

“Australia thinks of itself as overseeing the region as the big power in the region,” says Dr Wesley Morgan, a Pacific diplomacy expert with the Climate Council.

“The overlooking part is that Australia forever overlooks the region. It’s only when there’s a security crisis that Australia tends to rediscover its role as a key power in the Pacific.”

In Suva this week, the attention was on Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare after his April security deal with Beijing. By the second day of the forum, US Vice President Kamala Harris had committed her country to spending almost a billion dollars more in the region over the next decade.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s greeting to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese: “How about a hug?”

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s greeting to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese: “How about a hug?”Credit:Joe Armao

Behind closed doors, Australia, with the benefit of a new prime minister and foreign minister, had sought to re-orientate its relationship with leaders. Officials adopted a “three c’s” agenda in each meeting – climate, COVID and competition. Pacific leaders were keen to talk about the first two, but more reluctant to talk about the third.

Australia had to put it on the agenda. It opted to frame the discussions about financial sovereignty for Pacific nations. That framing appealed to the agency of Pacific leaders who had become sick of being referred to as chess pieces. When the regional security deal with Beijing was raised, it was with the expectation that China would come again, and again. The deal was seen as Beijing’s first step in normalising its presence in the region, and leaders were left in little doubt after their meetings last month with Foreign Minister Wang Yi that China was strategic, hard and determined.

Juncao grass was developed by Chinese scientists.

Juncao grass was developed by Chinese scientists.Credit:Joe Armao

By the end of the first day of meetings, Bainimarama – who had criticised Morrison heavily in 2019 – asked to sit next to Penny Wong at dinner, a minister below his ranking. Sogavare, after their warm hug for the cameras, sat next to Albanese. The latter two held further detailed discussions at the leaders retreat on Thursday.

Publicly, Albanese was relieved that Sogavare had made personal assurances to him that China would not build a naval base in the Solomons. Privately, Sogavare had been frank with Australian officials telling them the security deal with China was what it was – and Australia was just going to have to accept that while there may not be a navy base, there will be a Chinese police presence in the country.

Behind the scenes that day, officials in Canberra were finalising the funding for a $2 billion takeover deal of Digicel Pacific, the region’s largest mobile network. The purchase was a direct response to the threat of this most important infrastructure asset being sold to China Mobile.

“We have set about an objective to reconfirm Australia’s position in this region,” Albanese said after the meetings finished on Thursday.

The soft-power of Australia’s cultural links has perhaps been underestimated – particularly across language, sport and news services like the ABC. On Wednesday, Albanese watched the State of Origin in Suva with Puna, Papua New Guinea’s James Marape and Tonga’s Siaosi Sovaleni.

“These cultural connections are something that Australia can offer to people and very few countries elsewhere,” says Australia’s Pacific Minister Pat Conroy.

“You’re not going to get a Pacific rugby league team in the Chinese rugby league competition for example.”

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Australian officials are increasingly pragmatic about the threat China poses. Much of its diplomacy is still clunky as the security deal saga showed. But the Juncao grass, the new hospitals and roads that pave the way in Fiji show China is winning hearts and minds in some places, while putting others offside – particularly those concerned about the environment.

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