HAVING taken a back seat in 2022 due to more urgent global priorities such as the Russia-Ukraine war, Quad — the four-nation group of India, Japan, Australia and the US — found its work cut out last week. Fiji, where ethnic Indians were in a majority until the aftermath of a military coup in 1987 forced tens of thousands of them to leave the country of 330 islands, is posing the first major challenge to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue since Quad was born again in its present form in 2017.
If domestic politics and external relations issues hot up in Fiji with the change in government, Australia and the US will turn to the four-nation group to stymie China.
For India, developments in Fiji, where the erstwhile anti-Indian coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka was elected PM on Christmas eve, present a stream of ironies and dilemmas. Following Rabuka’s election, replacing his Beijing-leaning predecessor, Frank Bainimarama, Fiji will be the ground zero for China-US rivalry in Oceania in the coming months. Rabuka has only a two-vote majority in Fiji’s small Parliament of 55 members. China has deep pockets. Angered by Rabuka’s rejection of a bilateral security treaty, China will leave no stone unturned in ousting the new pro-western government. India has always rejected the notion that Quad has seeds of a military alliance, or that it is anti-China, but India cannot sit back and let Fiji fall into China’s lap. India’s ties with the Indophile nation are ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious. They are left over by history.
Narendra Modi visited Fiji within six months of assumption of office in his first term as PM. It was a bold step. It ended a freeze in high-level visits since Rabuka overthrew the islands’ democratically elected government, which provided a conducive environment for Fiji Indians to live in peace in the country, which had been their home for over a century. Before Modi, Indira Gandhi was the last PM to visit Fiji in 1981. Modi was alert to competition from After meeting PM Bainimarama, in order to counter China, Modi publicly offered to ‘expand our defence and security cooperation, including assistance in defence training and capacity building’. He announced visa on arrival for Fijians, which delighted Fiji Indians, for whom their ancient homelands in Bihar and UP are places of pilgrimage and a passage to their roots.
A strand of Gujarat will ensure that the process of rapprochement with Fiji, which Modi launched with his visit eight years ago, will not be stalled just because Rabuka has returned as PM. In 2007, when Modi was CM, Rabuka went to Gujarat. A namesake of the Prime Minister, Baroda’s famous arthroplasty surgeon, Bharat Mody, was approached by Rabuka for knee surgery. The surgeon is known to Modi and it was said at that time in the Ministry of External Affairs that Baroda’s Welcare Hospital, where Mody was chief of the Centre for Knee Surgery, had consulted the CM on Rabuka’s visit to the state in view of his controversial past and the sensitivity of his presence in Baroda. The surgery went well. Seven years after the surgery, a contrite Rabuka told TP Sreenivasan, whom he had expelled as India’s High Commissioner after his infamous coup d’état, that after the surgery in Baroda, his ‘quality of life had improved’. For Rabuka, meeting Sreenivasan at the Suva Golf Club, where both men played golf together before they became adversaries, was one way of mending fences with those with whom he had crossed swords after the coup. Age and adversity, plus long years in political wilderness, have mellowed Rabuka. It will be reflected in relations with India if the powerful China lobby in capital Suva does not depose Rabuka as PM.
Fiji is important for China because it has a staunch ‘one China’ policy. Several of Fiji’s neighbours, on the other hand, once recognised Taiwan solely as the Republic of China and did not have relations with the mainland. Gradually, Beijing has made inroads into this region: yet, of the 14 countries worldwide which maintain full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, four are among the Pacific islands. Fiji is a leader among the community of nations in its region because of its size and its diverse strengths. So, Beijing can ill afford to let its guard down.
After switching kinship from Taipei to Beijing in 2019, the Solomon Islands has moved steadily towards all-round improvement in engaging the mainland to a point where it now has a security pact with China. The pact is similar to the one China is said to have proposed to Rabuka’s predecessor Bainimarama. China’s new security pact with the Solomon Islands caused friction with the US and its allies in the region, Australia and New Zealand. But the small nation has persevered in its pro-China stance.
Alarmed by the inroads China is making into Oceania, US President Joe Biden hosted the first-ever summit with 12 Pacific Island nations in Washington in September. After the summit, the Biden administration is in overdrive in that region, which it always treated as its appendage with scant regard for the strategic freedom of the island states. Despite its security pact with China, a US embassy is to be opened in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands. Biden’s Vice-President Kamala Harris announced at another Pacific Islands Forum that Washington would open embassies in Tonga and Kiribati. The islanders are thrilled with the attention they are suddenly receiving from the White House after decades of neglect.
If domestic politics and external relations issues hot up in Fiji with the change in government, at least two Quad nations, Australia and the US, will turn to the four-nation group to stymie China and actions by its proxies in Suva. That is when India and Japan will have to take a call on the future course of Quad after a year when the group was mostly dormant.
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