Fiji’s Russian arms deal a wake-up call

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New Zealand and Australian defence forces need to rebuild ties with Fiji in the wake of a Russian arms deal with Fiji that highlights a shift in traditional security dynamics in the region, according to a new Report.

Titled ‘Principled Engagement: Rebuilding Defence Ties with Fiji,’ it is co-authored by Massey University’s Dr Anna Powles and Senior Strategic and Security Analyst Jose Sousa-Santos, from STRATCON.

Security Orthodoxy

The recently published report for Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy argues that “Russia’s sale of arms to Fiji underlines how the security orthodoxy in the Pacific Islands region is changing. Unless Australia and New Zealand adapt to these changing strategic circumstances they will lose influence in the region to external players.”

Dr Powles, an expert on international relations based at the Massey University Centre for Defence and Security Studies based in Wellington, said that the Report is in part a response to Russia’s announcement in January this year that it would be sending military equipment and supplies to Fiji to support Fiji’s peacekeeping operations on the Golan Heights, bordering Syria and Israel.

The arms deal, the authors said, is a result of Fiji seeking new strategic partners in the aftermath of New Zealand and Australian-led sanctions imposed after the 2006 military coup in Fiji.

Beyond soft approach

While relations between the three Pacific nations have been normalised since 2014, New Zealand and Australian governments need to raise engagement with Fiji beyond a primarily “soft approach” through disaster relief assistance – although this is important too – the Report said.

Dr Powles and Mr Sousa-Santos recommend the creation of a regional peacekeeping centre of excellence jointly developed by New Zealand, Australia and Fiji, and a Pacific disaster response and coordination unit to formalise collaborative ties.

Humanitarian assistance

Humanitarian aid to Fiji and other Pacific Island nations in the aftermath of the severe tropical cyclone Winston in February this year – the strongest ever recorded in the southern hemisphere – was an opportunity to re-engage with Fiji.

“It was also a timely reminder that geography and proximity do matter. Russia’s modest assistance in this instance was overshadowed by the massive support provided by Australia and New Zealand,” the authors said.

In its background to the developments with the arms deal with Russia, the Report said Fiji’s foreign policy underwent a major change when it was suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth in 2009.

Strategy review

These have since been lifted as a result of its 2014 elections, viewed as a ‘first step on the road back to democracy.’

However, Fiji has sought a new set of strategic partners and alliances – including BRICS (Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, China and South Africa) – in redefining its place and role in the Pacific.

It is the context of this shift in Fijian foreign policy that Russia’s donation of AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and trucks worth an estimated US$ 12.5 million needs to be viewed, Dr Powles and Mr Sousa-Santos said.

“Fiji’s enhanced ties with Russia reflect a military culture and leadership born out of Fiji’s period of isolation under sanctions. The same can also be said of Fiji’s military cooperation with China and, to a lesser degree, India and Malaysia. What is less clear is what has driven the deal from the Russian side.”

Strategic Competition

However, strategic competition among superpowers (China, Russia, the United States) is not new to the Pacific, the authors said.

But in order to adapt to geopolitical changes in the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia need to “understand that there is a new confidence in the Pacific region and a stronger determination by the people of the region to determine their own futures,” they said.

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Photo Caption:

Disaster relief to Fiji after severe tropical cycle Winston this year reinforced ties between Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.

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