The recent delivery of Russian weapons to Fiji raises many questions, including what they will be used for, how will Fiji's neighbours react, and whether it is a forerunner to an increased military presence by Russia and possibly China. What is certain is the 20-container shipment has shown Fiji's one-time supporters and influencers in the West, led by Australia and New Zealand, that Fiji's diplomatic and military alignments lie elsewhere. The regional implications of this shift are significant.
The weapons were 'donated' by Russia pursuant to a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in February 2015. The Fijians say the weapons are needed by the more than 1000 Fijian peacekeepers deployed in places like the Middle East because what they currently have in their inventory is obsolete. The shipment reportedly includes small arms (squad) weapons, two trucks, tear gas, other non-lethal munitions and possibly one or more helicopters. The shipment will formally be unveiled this month, in front of a Russian delegation that will include military trainers who will remain in Fiji to instruct Republic of Fiji Military Forces personnel.
As discussed by Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santo in their post 'Russia ships arms to Fji: What will be the quid pro qou?' Fijian opposition figures have claimed the shipment is illegal because it was not approved by parliament and because it could be used against domestic opponents of the military-backed government.
In fact, the shipment is perfectly legal as it is not part of a Treaty that needs parliamentary ratification. Plus, it is a 'donation' of military aid so it does not need parliamentary approval.
The opposition is, however, correct to be concerned about the 'dual use' potential of the weapons. Squad weapons, tear gas and non-lethal munitions can be used in peacekeeping but can also be used as instruments of crowd control at home. This is a very real possibility, given the history of the Fijian Military Forces, although it should be noted that non-lethal weapons have been sourced from other countries as well.
Depending on what it contains, the arms shipment could trigger an arms race with Tonga, which also has a military and is a rival of Fiji. The Tongans are not likely to view the shipment kindly even if it does not specifically include naval equipment. Squad weapons can and are used by navies as a matter of routine, and introduction of military helicopters into a regional rivalry is bound to cause concern in the Kingdom.
Although Fijian military inventories may well be obsolete, most UN peacekeeping missions are armed by the UN using NATO-standard equipment. That includes small arms and troop carriers used in 'blue helmet' operations. Thus, even though there are many Russian-made weapons in conflict zones, the claim that the Russian arms are needed for peacekeeping is debatable at best.
Also, given the Fijian military is familiar with and competent in the use of small arms and knows how to drive heavy vehicles, it is unclear as to what sort of equipment requires Russian training prior to their use.
The MOU with Russia also outlines bilateral military educational exchanges. These follow on a similar program with the Chinese military (PLA). The Chinese also have funded and undertaken numerous infrastructure projects such as port dredging and road building that have a parallel 'dual use' potential: they can be used for civilian and military purposes alike.
Given the above, it is reasonable to speculate that the Chinese and/or Russians may receive forward basing rights in Fiji in the not to distant future. Under the 'Looking North' policy Fiji has clearly pivoted away from its traditional Western patrons (Australia, NZ and the US) and towards others that are less concerned about the status of Fijian democracy (such as it is, and it is not very much). Given these weapons transfers plus bilateral military education and training exercises with China and Russia, the path is cleared for the two countries to use Fiji as a means of projecting (especially maritime) power in the South Pacific.
The Chinese are already doing so, with Chinese naval ships making regular ports of call in Suva. After years of neglect, the Russian Pacific fleet has resumed long-range patrols. So the stage is set for a deepening of military ties eventually leading to a basing agreement for one or both. In the Chinese case, this would be in line with recent basing agreements signed with Pakistan and Djibouti.
The Chinese and Russians are enjoying some of their best bilateral relations in decades. It is therefore possible that they may be working in coordinated, cooperative or complementary fashion when it comes to their overtures to the Fijians. Both seek tourism opportunities as well as preferential access to fisheries in and around Fijian territorial waters, so their non-military interests converge in that regard, which may limit the regional competition between them.
It is clear that post-election Fiji has moved from a 'guarded' democracy, in which the military acts as a check on civilian government, to a soft authoritarian regime in which the executive branch supersedes and subordinates the legislature and judiciary with military connivance. Instead of going from a 'hard' dictatorship to a 'hard' democracy after the 2014 election, Fiji has moved from a 'hard' dictatorship to a 'soft' one (for those who know Spanish and the regime transitions literature, the move was from a 'dictadura' to a 'dictablanda' rather than to a 'democradura').
Some of this is by constitutional design (since the military bureaucratic regime dictated the current constitution prior to the 2014 elections), while other aspects of the slide back towards dictatorship are de facto rather than de jure (such as the speakers' order to reduce the amount of days parliament can sit. The speaker is a member of the ruling party yet holds a position that is supposed to be apolitical). Then there are the strict restrictions on press freedom and freedom of political participation to consider. Attacks on the Methodist Church, arrests of civil society activists and claims of coup plotting by expats and local associates contribute to concerns about the state of governmental affairs.
Add to that the fact that the first Police Commissioner after the election resigned after military interference in his investigation of police officers implicated in torture, and then was replaced by a military officer (against constitutional guarantees of police and military independence) while the policemen were given military commissions (which insulated them from prosecution thanks to provisions in the 2014 constitution), and one gets the sense that Fiji is now a democracy in name only.
None of this bothers the Russians or the Chinese, both of whom resisted the imposition of sanctions on Fiji after the 2006 coup (to include vetoing UN Security Council resolutions barring Fiji from peacekeeping operations). In fact, the two countries increased their bilateral relations with Fiji in wake of the coup, putting issues other than democracy at the forefront of their relationship. That approach has continued and deepened in recent years.
All in all, the outlook is two-fold, with one trend a continuation and the other one new. Fiji is once again becoming authoritarian in governance, this time under electoral guise and a facade of constitutionalism. In parallel it has decisively turned away from the West when it comes to its diplomatic and military alignments. This turn is a direct result of the failed sanctions regime imposed on Fiji after the 2006 coup, which was too porous and too shallow to have the impact on Fiji hoped for at the time of imposition.
The outcome is a greatly diminished diplomatic influence and leverage on Fiji on the part of Australia, New Zealand and (to a lesser extent) the US and the rise of China, India and Russia as Fiji's major diplomatic interlocutors. Factor in Fiji's disdain for the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and its continued attempt to fashion the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) as a counter to it, and the makings of a regional transitional moment are clear.
The sum result of this is that the strategic balance in the South Pacific is clearly in flux. Given the US 'pivot' to Asia and the reassertion of its security ties with Australia and New Zealand, that is bound to result in increased diplomatic tensions and gamesmanship in the Western Pacific in the years to come.
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images