AUCKLAND Fiji is becoming a security concern for its neighbors due to its growing ties with Russia, which has sent military advisers to teach the Fijian army how to use recently delivered combat equipment.
While Moscow says the arms are intended to help Fijian troops in United Nations peacekeeping duties, there are fears that its assistance may herald plans for further involvement in the South Pacific.
The Republic of Fiji Military Forces have 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 is now 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 Fijian soldiers as international peacekeepers, but China and Russia blocked that bid. The RFMF, which includes 3,500 soldiers and 6,000 reservists, has about 1,000 peacekeepers serving around the world.
Under a "look north" policy introduced by Bainimarama, China has become heavily involved in Fiji. After Cyclone Winston devastated the archipelago on Feb. 20, killing at least 36 people, China gave $100,000 to the Fiji Red Cross, making it the first country to send aid, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
Russian relations warmed recently with the arrival on Jan. 14 of two ships from Russia carrying 27 containers of arms. They included Ratnik (warrior) individual combat kits, Pecheneg machine guns, Kalashnikov rifles, antitank rocket propelled grenades, computers and large trucks.
Lt. Gen. Nikolai Parshin, in charge of Russian missile and artillery operations, led a delegation of 10 instructors to Suva to hand over the equipment and train the Fijians.
He dismissed as "idle speculation" claims that Russia wanted a submarine support base in the South Pacific.
The Russian foreign ministry said the equipment was intended for Fijian soldiers serving in the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel. It added that arms shipments were part of "expanding multidimensional cooperation" with Fiji and other countries in the South Pacific.
PEACEKEEPING SPINOFF Fiji Defense Minister Timoci Natuva said the government had paid 19 million Fiji dollars ($8.95 million) for the shipment and was negotiating for a second one. "This is like the spinoff for our peacekeeping," he said.
In 2013, Bainimarama met Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, and signed military cooperation protocols.
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." Foreign Minister Murray McCully followed up with a trip to Fiji. He said New Zealand needed to strengthen defense relations with Fiji and signed an aid deal with Fiji worth NZ$33 million ($21.7 million).
Paul Buchanan, director of 36th Parallel 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. 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."
For Russia, the payback for military assistance has been Fijian diplomatic support in the U.N. for the Russia in disputes with Ukraine and Georgia.
The RFMF's military connection with the Russians could cause it problems in the Golan Heights, since it could prompt attacks on Fijian troops there by rebel groups opposing the Russian-backed Syrian government.