Secret Russian arms donation to Fiji raises concerns of bid for Pacific influence
Source: The Guardian
At least 20 containers, believed to be full of weapons and military hardware, were landed in the former British colony.
A secretive shipment of weapons and military hardware donated by Russia to the military of Fiji may be an “opening move” in a battle for influence in the Asia-Pacific region security experts have said.
The 20-container shipment – sent by the Russian government to its recently-forged ally – was unloaded from a cargo ship in Suva last week. It will be followed by Russian military personnel arriving in the archipelago nation next month to act as “trainers” for the new arsenal.
The manifest of the arms shipment remains unknown. It is believed to contain mainly small arms, but opposition politicians, concerned by the secrecy of the transfer, have speculated it may include a helicopter, heavy weaponry or non-lethal munitions intended for domestic crowd control.
Fiji has said it will formally unveil the weapons in February, but some in the country are skeptical the entire arsenal will be publicly revealed.
The weapons, the Fiji government has said, will re-arm Fijian peace-keepers serving in UN missions overseas with modern weapons.
A significant proportion of the Fiji military is currently involved in such missions. Currently, just under 1,000 troops are on duty in the Sinai, Syria, Golan Heights, Iraq, and Lebanon, and the Fijian government is anxious to maintain its commitment.
UN assignments are profitable, and the Fijian troops themselves earn significantly more money on peace-keeping duties with the UN than while on regular defence force pay. Their remittances back home are a significant boost to the economy.
Confirming the arrival of the consignment, acting commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, Rear-Admiral Viliame Naupoto said the weapons were needed because Fijian peacekeepers were working in volatile areas “[and] they are using outdated arms”.
“I must thank the Government of Russia for the timely donation.”
Director of the Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institute, Jenny Hayward-Jones told The Guardian the Russian military transfer was “definitely unusual”, but needed to be seen in the context of Fiji seeking new diplomatic and military allies in the wake of its fractious recent political history.
After then Commodore Bainimarama led a military coup to seize control of the country in 2006, traditional allies Australia, New Zealand, and the US imposed military, travel, and financial restrictions on Fiji, which severely strained relations.
In response, Fiji sought new international partners – establishing 57 new diplomatic partnerships since 2006 – and, in particular, deepening ties with first China, and now, Russia.
“For a while now, Fiji has been looking for other relationships as it moved away from the traditional partners of Australia-New Zealand for military co-operation.”
On the Russian side, the arms transfer may have begun as “simply transactional”, Hayward-Jones said.
“But it would be naive to say that Russia does not have intentions. And it will be aware of the perceptions this will create.”
Dr Paul Buchanan, director of 36th Parallel Security Assessments, said he believed the decline of ‘the West’s’ influence in Fiji was terminal, and Fiji’s desire for new partners coincided with China and Russia seeking to project their influence across the Asia-Pacific.
“The sanctions didn’t succeed in hurting Fiji, they succeeded in alienating Fiji. Just as the Obama administration has had its ‘Look East’ pivot towards Asia, Fiji has had a ‘Look North’ pivot, which is really a misnomer because it just meant ‘Look Anywhere Else’.”
Russia has worked assiduously to deepen economic, diplomatic, and military ties with Fiji. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was the first senior Russian government official to visit Fiji in 2012, and the next year, Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama became the first Fijian leader to pay a state visit to Russia.
Fijian officers will now study at Russian military academies, Buchanan said.
“It strikes me that we could see in 10 to 15 years, regular visits by Russian naval ships to Suva. And perhaps in 20 years, China and/or Russian being granted forward basing rights in Fiji.”
“I think this is an opening pawn move in what’s going to be a much longer chess game.”
Fiji opposition whip Ratu Isoa Tikoca, from the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), speculated the shipment contained not only small arms and ammunition, but tanks and a helicopter.
“The covertness of getting this across without notifying the public, without notifying … parliament, this is not an issue that was even raised in the committee that looks after foreign affairs and defence,” he told Radio Australia.
“I demand that the government, the prime minister, the commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Force open those consignments and reveal what it is.”
Buchanan said the imminent arrival of Russian military trainers in Fiji raised suspicions about exactly what had been delivered.
“The Fiji military is capable. It doesn’t need Russians to teach recruits how to fire a sub-machine gun.”
He said reports that the Russian consignment included tear gas and other non-lethal munitions, raised concerns those weapons might be used for crowd control of the local population.
Hayward-Jones told The Guardian it was legitimate to question what exactly Fiji had received.
“I think the Fiji opposition, and the public, has a right to know what exactly has been bought here, for what does the government intend to use these weapons, where, and in what circumstances.
“But I also think people need to ask why? We need to look at the broader context and ask: what is Fiji intending here?”