Fiji looks set to withdraw from a United Nations motion calling on China to address serious human rights violations in Xinjiang to avoid drawing a backlash from Beijing.
Last week Fiji joined a group of 51 nations supporting a “cross-regional statement” delivered by the United Kingdom, which demands China end human rights abuses in the province and highlights a deeply critical report on Xinjiang by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Fiji was the only Pacific country with diplomatic links to China to throw its weight behind the motion.
In the statement, the countries highlight that the UN High Commissioner found “arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities” in Xinjiang, which “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.
“We urge China to end its violations of human rights in Xinjiang, engage constructively with the [Human Rights Commissioner] and fully implement the recommendations of the assessment,” it says.
China reacts angrily, claims ‘lies and disinformation’
China has angrily rejected the joint statement, accusing the United Kingdom – which delivered it on behalf of the group – of “spreading lies and disinformation”.
“Xinjiang-related issues are purely China’s internal affairs, and no external force has the right to interfere,” it said.
The bulk of the statement’s 51 signatories are Western nations, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and a host of European countries.
They were joined by Japan, as well as four Pacific Island nations that recognise Taiwan rather than China.
Fiji’s move to join surprised some observers, as Pacific countries with diplomatic ties to China usually keep quiet or back Beijing when Western nations try to ratchet up pressure on the emerging superpower over internal human rights abuses.
The ABC has been told that China has been pushing Fiji to backtrack and that Fijian officials had quietly approached the statement’s backers, asking whether it would be possible to remove its name.
One senior Fiji government source also told the ABC that the Foreign Affairs Secretary had instructed its mission in New York to “withdraw” from the statement, and suggested that its diplomats signed on without authorisation from Suva.
“Consistent with our policy of non interference, Fiji should be abstaining from supporting such statements,” they said.
“By co-signing the statement, we are deviating from our no interference policy and more important is … its impact on our bilateral relations with PRC.”
Fiji wants to focus on ties with ‘traditional’ partners
The controversy comes as Fiji tries to balance its ties with the West and China as its economy recovers from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and travel bans.
Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka has repeatedly said he wants to build police and security ties with “traditional” partners like Australia and New Zealand, and angered Beijing earlier this year when he moved to cancel a contentious policing agreement with China.
He also withdrew from a visit to China at the last minute earlier this year saying he needed to get medical care after tripping and banging his head.
But Mr Rabuka also stressed on his recent visit to Australia that he sees China as a crucial economic partner, and has called on both Beijing and Washington to ratchet down tensions in the Pacific in order to establish what he’s called a “Zone of Peace”.
Jose Sousa-Santos, who is a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said Fiji’s final positioning on the Xinjiang statement would be closely watched.
“Fiji has been successful hedging its key relationships, balancing economic needs with security, and this is an opportunity for Fiji to place universal human rights principles at the heart of Prime Minister Rabuka’s proposed zone of peace,” he said.
“Fiji’s ability to walk this tightrope will be critical for the broader Pacific region.”
Not clear who exactly signed off on joining statement
Tess Newton Cain from the Griffith Asia Institute’s Pacific Hub said it was not clear exactly who signed off on the decision to join the statement.
“This is one of a few instances that indicate that there is a lack of agreed approach within the cabinet and ministry,” Dr Newton Cain said.
“Others are the kerfuffle over the appointment of the Attorney General and the cabinet reshuffle which we have now learned is on hold.”
She said that the continuing uncertainty over Fiji’s position might also highlight a “divergence of opinion and approach across the Fijian political leadership”.
“Rabuka has said things that could be very broadly termed as anti-China but this apparent walk back indicates that this is not a view that is shared across the cabinet. And in the end he needs to keep the coalition intact.”
China’s Mission to the United Nations last week said 72 countries backed a competing United Nations statement delivered by Pakistan which defended China’s human rights record in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
It did not identify which countries voted for it, but human rights groups have circulated a list of China’s backers which includes Pacific Island nations Tonga, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Papua New Guinea.