Fiji's leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, plans to curtail traditional ties with Australia, New Zealand and the United States in favor of a closer relationship with China. The army chief, who seized power in 2006, has ignored calls by international critics to restore democracy.

Fiji's self-appointed prime minister says the Chinese understand the reforms he is trying to implement better than Australia and New Zealand do.

While visiting China this week, Commodore Frank Bainimarama said he is prepared to abandon his country's traditional political ties in the region in favor of China. He stressed, however, that Fiji will continue to trade with New Zealand and Australia.

The army seized power in Fiji a bloodless coup in Fiji three-and-a-half years ago. The commodore says he is working to cleanse his country of corruption and racism. Canberra and Wellington have, however, been vocal critics of his rule.

In China, the Fijian leader says he is among friends and will direct diplomatic efforts toward Beijing in the hope of more donations and trade opportunities.

Professor John Warhurst from the Australian National University in Canberra says China's efforts to be more influential in the South Pacific will unsettle Australia.

"What has happened in Fiji over the last 10 or 15 years now with the number of coups probably leads Australian policy-makers and the general community to throw their hands up and say 'look, this is beyond our doing anything about it'. The question of a superpower like China injecting itself into the Pacific I think would have long-term worries for Australia," Warhurst said. 

Warhurst thinks China could undermine a region that is already destabilized, while a greater role for Beijing in the South Pacific might overshadow Australia's role as the biggest power in the neighborhood.

The Bainimarama government in Fiji is short of friends overseas. Its disagreements with Australia and New Zealand have occasionally boiled over with diplomatic expulsions, with the commodore accusing his more powerful South Pacific neighbors of interfering in his nation's affairs. Opponents of the military government say Commodore Bainimarama is increasingly behaving like a dictator.

The press has been muzzled, opponents jailed and the constitution scrapped, while the judiciary has been dismissed and plans to hold elections repeatedly delayed.  

As a result, it has been suspended from the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum, the region's main diplomatic bloc, and the Commonwealth grouping of former British colonies. Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the European Union have imposed some sanctions on the Fijian government.

The Fijian archipelago lies about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, and is home to about one million people. Most are indigenous Fijians, while just over a third are ethnic Indians, descendants of laborers the British brought to work on colonial sugar plantations.