AUCKLAND -- Coup-prone Fiji is becoming a security concern for Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific states due to its growing ties with Russia, which has sent military advisers to teach the Fijian army how to use recently delivered combat equipment.
Moscow says the arms are intended to help Fiji troops to carry out United Nations peacekeeping duties in the Middle East. However, there are fears that its military assistance may herald plans for further involvement in the South Pacific.
The Republic of Fiji Military Forces has staged four coups since 1987. The most recent was in 2006, led by Voreqe Bainimarama, then the armed forces commander. After eight years of military rule, Bainimarama held democratic elections under a revised constitution and became prime minister.
Australia and New Zealand imposed sanctions on Fiji in 2006, limiting access for top officials and cutting military ties. Australia also tried to get the U.N. to blacklist Fiji soldiers as international peacekeepers, but China and Russia blocked that bid.
Under a "look north" policy introduced by Bainimarama, China has become heavily involved in Fiji, building infrastructure across the former British colony and stationing the 21,000-ton satellite tracking ship, Yuanwang 6, in Suva, Fiji's capital.
However, the island state's relationship with Moscow has also been warming -- most notably with the arrival on Jan. 14 of two ships from Russia carrying 27 sealed containers, the contents of which have yet to be explained. Ten instructors sent by Russia's armed forces arrived on Feb. 9.
The shipment came to light when a convoy of trucks carrying the containers to the colonial-era Queen Elizabeth Barracks was noted on social media by people in Suva, a city of only 75,000 people. The instructors arrived as tourists at the small international airport, but their presence was later confirmed by Fiji's defense ministry.
A Russian foreign ministry spokesperson said on Jan. 29 that the equipment was intended for Fijian soldiers serving in the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel. Fiji, a regional hub of 881,000 people, has about 1,000 peacekeepers serving around the world.
Maria Zakharova said Russia would be "further expanding multidimensional cooperation, including through military supplies, with Fiji and other countries in the South Pacific," adding that the speculation about Moscow's motives was "another example of how conspiracy theorists missed a shot with claims of a 'Russian trail' in the South Pacific."
Fiji Defense Minister Timoci Natuva told parliament in Suva that the government had paid 19 million Fiji dollars ($8.8 million) for the shipment. He gave no details of its contents, but told the Fiji Times that the government was negotiating for a second shipment of arms and ammunition to replace its South Korean K2 and U.S. M16 rifles. "This is like the spinoff for our peacekeeping," Natuva said.
The Russian arms shipment owes its origin to a 2012 visit to Fiji by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. A year later Bainimarama met Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, signing military cooperation protocols.
At the time the Moscow daily Izvestia quoted Dmitry Litovkin, a Russian military expert, saying that the Fijians would get new "Ratnik" (warrior) individual combat kits along with export versions of the Pecheneg machine-gun and Kalashnikov rifle. These weapons are compatible with North Atlantic Treaty Organization ammunition, as required by U.N. peacekeeping rules, Litovkin said.
On Feb. 13 New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said he was not worried about the arms shipment "as long as they understand that the responsibility rests with them."
Two days later, the New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully traveled to Suva to meet his Fiji counterpart Inoke Kubuabola, the first such trip since Fiji held elections in 2014.
McCully said the visit was to "discuss our ongoing re-engagement" with Fiji. Although he made no mention of the arms shipment, a senior New Zealand foreign ministry official said the issue would be on the agenda as the shipment had been a surprise to Wellington.
Paul Buchanan, director of 36th Parallel Security Assessments, a New Zealand security consultancy, said the Russian arms would worry other Pacific countries, raising concerns that China and Russia might seek to establish military bases in Fiji.
Buchanan said Australia and New Zealand had lost influence in Fiji since the imposition of sanctions. "We [the two countries] are not going to recover from this; the relationship has fundamentally, if not terminally, changed," he said in an interview.
Fiji had been forced to look north and was now dealing with multiple nations "with relatively no strings attached," which was probably better from Fiji's perspective than pursuing relationships with "small-fry like New Zealand and Australia."
Buchanan said it was plausible that Russia's motivation was to assist Fiji's peacekeeping capabilities, especially as the cost to Moscow was comparatively small. However, New Zealand defense academics Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santos argued that Russia is determined to build up maritime power in the Pacific with the deployment of Russian ballistic and multipurpose nuclear submarines.
"Analysts are speculating that the next logical step to Russia's increased submarine activity in the Pacific is a submarine fleet support base in the South Pacific," they said in a study for the Lowy Institute, the Australian think-tank.
The RFMF, which comprises 3,500 soldiers and 6,000 reservists, was established by New Zealand during World War II, when Wellington took over many British colonial responsibilities in the region during the war.
Stephen Franks, a former New Zealand politician who is now an international affairs lawyer, noted that close ties had existed between the Fiji and New Zealand armed forces, but had ebbed because of Wellington's "clerical approach" to geopolitics.
Franks said New Zealand's approach had been marked by the "low quality of our analysis and dumb approach to affairs on what had been left to us as our backyard, where we were supposed to have intimate knowledge and great relationships and trust."
For Russia, the payback for military assistance has been Fijian diplomatic support -- or at least lack of opposition -- in the U.N. for the Russian positions on the Ukraine and the Georgian breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
However, the RFMF's military connection with the Russians could cause it problems on the Golan Heights since it could prompt attacks on Fijian troops there by rebel groups opposing the Russian-backed Syrian government.
In 2014 the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front in Syria captured 45 Fijian peacekeepers. Fiji appealed to Qatar, which funds some Syrian opposition groups, to pay a ransom of $25 million for their release, which followed after two weeks of captivity.
Of the 16 South Pacific nations, only Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Tonga have military forces, although France also has military bases in New Caledonia and French Polynesia.
Fiji and Tonga are culturally aligned, but dispute possession of the Minerva Reefs, which lie between the two island groups. In 2010 patrol boats from the two countries had a brief confrontation before the Fijians withdrew. Tonga's 700-strong army has U.S. equipment as a result of taking part in the U.S.-led operation "Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan.
Concerns about Russian expansionism in the Pacific have a long history, dating back to voyages in the region by the Russian explorer Fabian von Bellingshausen in the 1820s. Decaying fortifications around the New Zealand coast were built in response to the Anglo-Russian rivalry in Afghanistan in 1885, and there were further Western worries about Pacific fishing deals signed by the Soviet Union before its demise.