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First Fiji, then the world

Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama takes off his hat at the beginning of the final session of the United States' climate change conference hosted by Fiji and held in Bonn on November 18, 2017. Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters

Immediately after his election victory in November, Joe Biden received an ambitious invitation. Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama wasted no time. He wasn't concerned about the former president's attempts to topple the election, and he certainly wouldn't wait for the transfer of power to complete. Fiji is hosting the annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) this August, and Bainimarama really wants Biden to be there. After four years in which the most powerful man in the world had belittled and neglected the most pressing problem facing the Pacific Islands – climate change – the ear of his replacement was now deemed essential.

There was a time when the leaders of the Pacific Islands would have considered making such a request through their station. Traditionally reserved and humble, they would have instead seen the path to advancing their interests as a run through PIF heavyweights Australia and New Zealand. However, given Australia's continued reluctance to face climate change, which created significant points of friction at the recent PIF in-person meeting, Bainimarama was forced to try another tactic that could go over the head of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and prevent him from producing a replay Performance. The presence of a US president who took climate change seriously would therefore do the trick well.

This tendency to seek creative solutions to Fiji's problems has been Bainimarama's defining feature for the past two decades. He is a man who is reluctant to face constraints – whether democratic or geopolitical – that have not made him popular with many at home and abroad. Through the sheer power of personality, lots of cunning, and some happy global trends, Bainimarama has been able to gain oversized international influence for Fiji that surpasses its reality as a group of geographically isolated islands of less than a million people.

Bainimarama gained political importance after the semi-successful coup against Fiji's first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry in 2000. A militia made up of businessman and indigenous Fijian nationalist George Speight stormed the parliament building in the capital Suva and held Chaudhry and most of his cabinet hostage for 56 days. With Fiji's largely ceremonial president unable to take control of the situation, Bainimarama, as commander of the Fijian armed forces, declared martial law, arrested Speight, and appointed himself head of a provisional military government. A month later he appointed a new civil government, this time led by the indigenous Fijian Laisenia Qarase.

Bainimarama, the then military commander of Fiji, in Queen Elizabeth's officers' mess in the Fijian capital Suva after his daily media address on December 7, 2006. Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Bainimarama retained his position as chief of the military and was disaffected with the Qarase government until 2006. Allegations of apparent misappropriation of state funds were the stated source of Bainimarama's discontent, but since the events of 2000 he had also developed his own ideas on how to resolve the negative power dynamics between the country's two main ethnic groups. Qarase's attempt to pass laws granting amnesty to Speight and his militia turned out to be the last straw. Bainimarama struck and pushed through Fiji's fourth coup in over 20 years. This time, however, he would take on the role of Prime Minister himself.

His primary belief in "cleaning up" the government initially earned him a lot of support, especially within the Indo-Fijian community. Although, ironically, one of Bainimarama's first acts was to grant amnesty to everyone involved in his own coup. However, ongoing divisions within the Fiji-dominated indigenous military over Bainimarama's vision for the country resulted in a failed plan to assassinate him in 2007. In connection with this, external pressures from regional powers Australia and New Zealand to restore democracy became fierce. Nonetheless, Bainimarama felt that serious work was being done in reforming Fiji's political institutions and it would take time. The promise to restore democracy in 2009 came and went, and eventually resulted in the Pacific nation being suspended from the PIF.

Finally, in 2013, he proposed a new constitution, which he hoped would counter the internal divisions in the country. It did away with race-based electoral rolls and ethnic seating quotas, while also repealing the unelected Upper House of Parliament and the powerful Grand Supreme Council. These changes were intended to remove the structural privileges of indigenous Fijians within the country's political institutions and signal an attempt to neutralize the ongoing ethnic divisions domestically. Since then, the new constitution simply refers to all Fiji citizens as "Fijians," and only recognizing iTaukei and Hindi – alongside English – as the country's official language recognizes the ethnic makeup of the country.

With the postponement of the democratic process in Fiji, however, Bainimarama's image as a power-hungry coup has increasingly marginalized the country in the region. PIF's suspension had prevented Fiji from serving its interests within the Pacific's primary multilateral body, and Bainimarama was ostracized by both Canberra and Wellington. When Fiji was re-admitted to the PIF in 2014 and still held a grudge, Bainimarama berated the other members of the forum by sending subordinate officials. Only appear in person in 2019.

Bainimarama felt that his powerful neighbors did not understand what he was trying to achieve with his sweeping reforms. He believed that his 2006 coup and the eight-year suspension of democracy were necessary measures to restore the country in a way that would transcend its deep-seated ethnic divisions once and for all. However, Bainimarama's declared reforms failed to affect Fiji's most powerful institution – the armed forces, which are almost entirely indigenous Fijians, in part due to their close relationship with the socially dominant Methodist Church.

In retrospect, instead of forcing Bainimarama into submission, Fiji's suspension of PIF inadvertently encouraged him to pursue a more assertive foreign policy aimed at circumventing Canberra and Wellington. In addition to the endeavor to establish Fiji as the central regional voice of the Pacific, he also promoted the renaming of the Pacific islands as "large ocean states" and not as small island developing states. In addition, he forged an ambitious "Look North" policy to expand Fiji's diplomatic reach, with stronger South-South cooperation and stronger ties with emerging powers. Although Bainimarama refused to participate in PIF, he insisted from the outside that the agenda of the panel should be set by the Pacific island states, not Australia and New Zealand. Unsatisfied with its pomposity, Bainimarama led the creation of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), a no-homers club that clearly excluded Pacific-based powers.

The twelve-year-old Timoci Naulusala from Fiji will be welcomed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bainimarama, and French President Emmanuel Macron during the World Climate Conference on November 15, 2017 in Bonn. Oliver Berg / Bildallianz via Getty Images

Bainimarama shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping as they meet in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on May 16, 2017. DAMIR SAGOLJ / AFP via Getty Images

The post-coup environment was not an ideal opportunity for China to increase its presence in the Pacific, which Bainimarama welcomed with enthusiasm. Russia also saw an opportunity with a "weapon donation", a cohort of military advisors and a high-profile visit from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In addition, Bainimarama sought a stronger connection with Indonesia in order to establish its own Pacific identity. Although this created tensions within the Melanesian Spearhead Group, where several members strongly supported West Papuan independence and believed that Jakarta was nurturing the Fijian leader to sow divisions within the subregional grouping.

These attempts to diversify Fiji's strategic partners raised alarm bells in Canberra. Australia's primary security objective is to prevent unaligned powers from gaining military access to Pacific islands that could theoretically serve as a base to either attack Australia or limit its maneuverability. China's growing interest and assertiveness in securing access to maritime resources, as well as its increasing presence in the Pacific – including poaching by two of Taiwan's allies in the region in 2019 – were seen as a significant threat to Canberra's target.

These concerns about Chinese activity in the region led both Australia and New Zealand to rush to develop reintegration measures – Canberra's Pacific Step-Up and Wellington's Pacific Reset – designed to work together to maintain their regional hegemony. After Bainimarama had successfully positioned itself as the fulcrum and strategic organizer of the island nations and had won two democratic elections by 2018 that legitimized its support in Fiji, Australia and New Zealand now felt compelled to get him out of the cold.

In 2019, Morrison made two trips to Suva to reconnect with the Fijian guide, and also received him in Canberra that same year. There the Fijian leader was ceremoniously welcomed, with an honor guard from the military, a 21-gun salute and everything a celebrated and powerful world leader could offer, signaling an extraordinary change in his status in the Australian capital. While in Canberra, he signed a new strategic collaboration agreement – the Fiji-Australia Vuvale Partnership (vuvale means family in iTaukei). The concept is that families can have differences of opinion, but they are linked by connections that can overcome such disputes.

An election poster for Bainimarama in the back window of a taxi as a man gestures by the door of a local gym in Fiji's capital Suva on Aug. 26, 2014.Lincoln Fest / REUTERS

Bainimarama's expanded influence not only gave him the opportunity to reshape the geopolitical conditions of competition in the region in Fiji's favor, but he also advocated major action against climate change. After all, the Pacific island states make negligible contributions to global carbon emissions, but are disproportionately affected by the environmental impacts. For many low-lying Pacific islands, they are the canaries in the coal mine due to the threat of climate change. In recognition of this, Fiji held the presidency of the United Nations Climate Change Conference from 2017 to 2018 (COP23), and Bainimarama warned strongly that no one “will ultimately escape the effects of climate change”.

Bainimarama reappeared at the 2019 PIF meeting in Tuvalu, targeting Morrison to tackle Australia's complacency with climate change. He highlighted how Australia's concurrent energy policy contradicted Canberra's efforts to be a dedicated and helpful partner to the Pacific Islander countries. In particular, he made it clear that Australia's enormous coal industry had become an existential threat to the region's low-lying atolls. Taking advantage of Morrison's later resentment and derogatory remarks, Bainimarama tactically highlighted Canberra's patronizing and complacent behavior as the main reason Pacific countries turn to China for assistance.

While that played into the hands of Beijing as well, the move allowed Bainimarama to rephrase the narrative of climate action as a national security concern for Australia, and use China's Pacific presence as a negotiating basis to reconnect with Canberra on its terms. Ironically, while China produces and uses far more coal than Australia, somewhat undermining Bainimarama's tactics, it should be seen as negligible to Canberra's own commitments.

With PIF now facing a legitimacy crisis after five Micronesian states announced their intention to withdraw from the body, Bainimarama's quest to present a unified Pacific voice to the world has suffered a significant setback. With three of these Micronesian countries in a free association agreement with the United States, Bainimarama's desire to have Biden physically in Suva in August may now be necessary to not only highlight Pacific environmental concerns and put pressure on Morrison. In addition, it could serve to repair the very body that once shunned the Fijian leader. Convincing Biden to attend the summit could therefore be Bainimarama's most momentous coup to date.

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