What's at Stake in Fiji for Australia, China, and the United States

For more than two decades, Fiji has endured one coup after another. During the latest one, Commodore Frank Bainimarama overthrew Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's duly elected but troubled government. Since then, Australia has tried to coerce Fiji back to democracy. The regime's failure to return to the polls, has led to Fiji's suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth. But, these actions have not led to a completely united approach, even in the West. To date, Bainimarama's tactics have provoked differing levels of outrage among the regional players, particularly Australia, China, and the United States. Their varying approaches will not only shape their ongoing interactions with the Bainimarama regime but also could affect long-term strategic interests in the South Pacific.

Positions of Regional Powers

Since the 2006 coup, Australia has taken the most uncompromising positions on Bainimarama. Working vigorously to isolate the regime and enforce sanctions until there are "credible signs" of a return to free elections, Australia has imposed strong sanctions, including suspension of ministerial contact and defense cooperation, an arms embargo, and visa restrictions.

China was once at the other extreme. In the immediate wake of the coup, paranoid that Fiji would move to recognize diplomatic rival Taiwan, China stepped in with promises of over $150 million in aid. However, with time and a diplomatic truce with Taiwan, China realized this fear was overblown and that its reaction was putting strain on its much more important relationship with Australia as well as the United States. China then delayed the rollout of its aid pledges and cut back on cash donations -- suggesting that Fiji's China card is itself overblown. That said, China remains the strongest supporter of the regime among the regional powers.

For the United States's part, while it has hewn closer its ANZUS partners than China, U.S. diplomats have tried to forge something of a middle ground by adopting a less uncompromising approach to sanctions and generally look for areas -- like crisis response and human trafficking -- through which to engage Fiji. This has been welcomed by the current regime, that has argued the United States could play a leading role in facilitating the country's return to a democratic government as a result.

Possible Outcomes

So, what are the strategic implications for these positions on the respective powers? To a large extent, this depends on whether Bainimarama is who he says he is or not. The decisions the regime makes in the next three years will provide the answer. Reflecting the uncertainty surrounding Fiji's future course, at present, four scenarios appear most likely.

Stable Western Style Democracy: A stable democracy could take hold if Commodore Bainimarama succeeds in the reforms that he claims to champion. This would require implementing strong social and economic policies which would mitigate the deep racial cleavages which have divided Fiji for decades. It also would require a concerted effort to reconcile political interest groups who were positively and negatively impacted by the coup. Finally, it would require the drafting of a constitution that would garner cross-spectrum support and the holding of free and fair elections that would bring an end to the coup. This latter goal received a positive, if small, boost last week with the announcement of a 'comprehensive consultation process on the new constitution'.

Stable Guided Democracy: Given Fiji's serious political, economic, and social divisions, Bainimarama's rejection of Western-style democracy should not be ruled out. Instead, his regime could oversee a form of guided democracy. In this scenario, the regime would maintain de facto control over Fiji's politics and the media through the use of coercive military-backed tactics to ensure elected politicians and the media remain compliant with military interests. Unlike autocracy, guided democracy would be notionally legitimized through elections, but if the unofficial compact unraveled, would result in another military coup to restore the status quo.

Unstable Democracy: An unstable democracy could take hold if Commodore

Bainimarama follows through on his commitment to restore democracy but fails in the reforms that he claims to champion. Under this scenario, the regime fails to effectively implement the social and economic policies that might mitigate the deep racial cleavages which have divided Fiji. There also likely would be no reconciliation of political interest groups. In the end, the elections would be held but the country would soon face yet another coup.

Autocracy: An autocracy could take hold if Commodore Bainimarama is not sincere in the reforms that he claims to champion and/or realizes he will be unable to implement his reform agenda. In this scenario, Bainimarama would use the run-up to elections to consolidate his political power and silence his opposition. When completed, he would abandon the premise of free and fair elections and remove any existing legal or legislative checks on his regime's powers.

Strategic Implications

While politicians may claim to know what path Bainimarama will choose, the history of the 2006 coup has yet to be fully written. For this reason, it is valuable to shift the discussion, at least for the moment, away from "What will Bainimarama choose?" to "What impact will each of the probable outcomes have on the strategic interests of the regional players?"

Stable Western Style Democracy: If Fiji holds reasonably free elections in 2014 under a constitution that removes racial biases and ensures political competition, all sides will likely claim vindication for their respective Fiji policies. In the short-term, tensions might remain raw between Fiji and Australia as Bainimarama (likely still in power) could argue that he was slandered while Australia could claim their sanctions succeeded in pressuring the Commodore into adhering to democratic reform. However, in their national interests, the long-simmering controversy would likely die down quickly as the two democracies push to normalize relations. In the meantime, as non-parties to this intra-Oceanic bickering, the United States and China would find themselves with clean hands from which to more aggressively pursue their national interests in the South Pacific.

Stable Guided Democracy: If Fiji pursues Turkish-style guided democracy, Australia might find itself wedged and its position weakened in the South Pacific. The government in Canberra has been so uncompromising and taken such strong public positions that it would be very hard for it to accept managed democracy in lieu of liberal democracy. Conversely, the United States and China would be better positioned to accept a stable managed democracy and to capitalize on such moves by the regime.

Unstable Democracy: According to James Clad, a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, an unstable democracy marred by race-based politics and possible conflict would present "the most headaches for Australian foreign policy." In essence, this is the nightmare scenario for Australia because they have secured the free and fair elections that they have demanded since 2006 but the entire premise of Bainimarama's anti-democratic efforts are validated. In this scenario, the United States and China would be in a far better position to advance their strategic interests in the region in the aftermath of the crisis.

Autocracy: If Bainimarama instead treads down the well worn path of entrenching his dictatorship, deeper fractures may begin to emerge. Australia probably will feel vindicated in its harsher position. Arguing that Bainimarama is a megalomaniac whose ambitions are antithetical to democracy, their calls for regime change could strengthen. This likely would force the United States to abandon its current policy preferences and fall in line with its ANZUS partners. As a consequence, Fiji probably would attempt to reach out to China, a move that would likely be futile however, because of Chinese concerns about undermining more important economic relations with Australia.

So which country's position is going to be vindicated? That depends who you ask. And, truth be told, no one knows for certain except Bainimarama.

Co-authored with Fergus Hanson.

Eddie Walsh is a senior foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He also serves as a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. Follow him on Twitter: @aseanreporting

Fergus Hanson is the Director of Polling and Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia.