washington - Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka said Wednesday that the island nation was reviewing an agreement on police cooperation it signed with China in 2011 that has allowed Chinese police officers to be stationed in Fiji.
Rabuka, speaking at a news conference in New Zealand where he was discussing a defense pact with Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, referred to Fiji's willingness to walk away from the agreement, The Associated Press reported.
"If our systems and our values differ, what cooperation can we get from them?" Rabuka said, referring to China. "We need to look at that again before we decide whether we go back to it, or if we continue the way that we have in the past by cooperating with those who have similar democratic values and systems."
Fiji has become increasingly important in the growing U.S.-China competition for influence and access to strategic waters in the Indo-Pacific region. In the past month, the U.S., India and South Korea have reached out to island nation leaders.
Rabuka's remarks were the latest in a series expressing unease with the memorandum of understanding that called for Fijian police officers to undergo training in China and for Chinese officers to be deployed to Fiji.
One of Rabuka's first acts after his narrow election victory late last year was to suspend the police commissioner and raise doubts about the deal, which had been negotiated by the former government led by Frank Bainimarama.
"There's no need for us to continue. Our systems are different," Rabuka told The Fiji Times in January. "Our system of democracy and justice systems are different, so we will go back to those that have similar systems with us."
At the time, Rabuka said officers from other countries like Australia and New Zealand could stay because their systems were similar to Fiji's. At the Wednesday press conference, he said that New Zealand and Fiji were poised to sign an agreement next week to increase military cooperation.
Fijian Home Affairs and Immigration Minister Pio Tikoduadua, who is in charge of Fiji's defense, went further while speaking Sunday on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue defense forum in Singapore.
'Termination [of the police agreement] is one outcome that could be possible,' Nikkei Asia quoted him as saying.
Tikoduadua said he had given China six months' notice of Fiji's intention to reappraise the deal in light of current geopolitical trends and how Fiji wants to realign national security.
'We are a newly elected government and our [police] agreement was made by the previous government,' he said, according to the Nikkei report. 'We want to go back and talk to the People's Republic of China about how we view our relationship going forward.'
'Whirlpool of disputes'
VOA Mandarin contacted the Chinese Embassy for a response to Rabuka's remarks but has not received a response. However, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu criticized U.S. efforts to restore alliances in the region at the same Singapore forum, which U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also attended.
Li warned that the American effort would "plunge the Asia-Pacific into a whirlpool of disputes and conflicts."
Under Bainimarama, Fiji adopted a 'Look North' policy that focused on developing relations with China at the expense of its traditional bonds with Australia and New Zealand.
Huang Enhao, an associate researcher at the Taiwan National Defense Security Research Institute, told VOA Mandarin that China's biggest advantage is that it provides economic aid to island countries with no strings attached. If some local governments feel that Western aid comes with human rights and anti-corruption requirements, they may turn to China, he said.
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.