Voters in Fiji looked to have re-elected the ruling party of former military leader Frank Bainimarama, an outcome likely to entrench China’s growing influence in the South Pacific.
When Fiji’s traditional Western partners imposed sanctions after Mr. Bainimarama seized power in a coup in 2006, China stepped into the breach.
Chinese investors went on a buying frenzy, building hotels, opening businesses and securing coastal real estate. Fiji’s imports from China soared to $355 million in 2016 from $65 million in 2006, according to the World Bank’s World Integrated Trade Solution database. At the same time, Fiji’s exports to China rose to $48 million from $2 million. More tourists come to Fiji from China than all but three countries: Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.
As the economic relationship blossomed, Mr. Bainimarama consolidated political ties. During a forum last year onBeijing’s Belt and Road initiative—a program aimed at expanding China’s economic clout through infrastructure loans—Mr. Bainimarama received high-level treatment from his hosts, including meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. He thanked China for the “friendship you have shown Fiji and the Fijian people for many years.”
Beijing has diplomatic leverage with Fiji because of its close relationship with the prime minister, said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute’s Pacific Program.
Still, much recent Chinese investment in Fiji is commercial, meaning that Beijing doesn’t have the same “debt trap” leverage over Fiji as it does in places such as Sri Lanka or smaller Pacific countries, Mr. Pryke said. Fiji hasn’t taken on any new Chinese loans since Western sanctions were lifted four years ago, according to the Lowy Institute.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Wednesday that both countries have the right to choose their diplomatic partners and do so on the basis of not interfering in each other’s affairs. She said Beijing wanted Fiji’s elections to go smoothly.
The U.S. and its allies are coordinating to counter what they see as Beijing’s attempts to gain influence over smaller nations via its Belt and Road initiative. In August, Australia outbid China to redevelop a Fijian military base.
Concerns over China’s influence flared last year when Chinese police flew to Fiji and arrested 77 Chinese nationals allegedly running a phone and online scam targeting victims in mainland China. They were hooded, manacled and loaded onto a plane by uniformed Chinese police, leading opposition lawmakers to question why the arrests weren’t handled by local police. China said it sought approval from relevant authorities.
While relations with the West have improved since Fiji restored democracy in 2014, the experience of its drift toward China shows the need to “be careful about isolating regimes in countries that matter to you,” said Stewart Firth, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.
“Bainimarama never tired of telling people that China stood alongside Fiji while Australia and New Zealand abandoned it,” he said.
Fiji’s economic growth has picked up in recent years against the backdrop of political stability, with the exception of 2016 when the country was hit by a severe cyclone. The Asian Development Bank forecasts growth of 3.6% this year and 3.3% next year, outpacing most Pacific nations.
This week’s election was the second since Mr. Bainimarama seized power. He stepped down from the military in 2014 and contested that year’s elections as a civilian, winning by a landslide.
Provisional results Wednesday showed that Mr. Bainimarama’s Fiji First party won more than 50% of the vote, enough for a majority in the 51-seat legislature. The main opposition group, Social Democratic Liberal Party of Fiji, was in second place.
The vote also offered a window on the health of Fiji’s democracy. The years of military rule were littered with accusations of human-rights abuses and the quashing of opposition. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Fiji 81st out of 167 nations on its annual Democracy Index in 2017, up from 124th in 2013.
Ahead of the election, Amnesty International said Fiji must correct severe failings in human-rights protections.
“Fiji is a country where security forces continue to torture people, where media workers are harassed simply for doing their job, and where women are shamed and harassed for calling out violence and discrimination against them,” said Roshika Deo, Amnesty International’s Pacific researcher.
The government says it has worked hard to put the legacy of its coup-prone history behind it.
—Charles Hutzler in Beijing contributed to this article.
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