A secret Russian consignment of weapons landed in Fiji last week, arousing suspicions about Moscow’s motives in the South Pacific.
The sudden arrival of expensive military equipment has raised alarm bells at home and abroad and prompted experts to question what exactly Russia stands to gain from the tiny archipelago nation.
The Fijian government, which seized control of the country in the 2006 coup, insists the weapons are for its peacekeeping troops. However, opposition politician have hinted at something more sinister.
A shipment of 20 containers arrived in the Fiji capital Suva on 14 January. The contents have not yet been made public, but the country’s opposition Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) has speculated they may contain guns, tanks, a helicopter and other military equipment. Russian military experts are also due to travel to the nation soon to train local forces.
Why does Fiji want weapons?
Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama’s government described the shipment as “aid” and says the guns will be sent to Fijian peacekeeping troops working on United Nation missions around the world.
But the opposition argues the secrecy is suspicious. “The covertness of getting this across without notifying the public, without notifying parliament,” SODELPA’s Ratu Isoa Tikoca told Radio Australia.
His party has raised fears the weapons could be used against the local population. “Given Fijis history, I think they have reason to be concerned,” Paul Buchanan, of the 36th Parallel Assessments.
Experts say Fiji’s blossoming relationship with Russia represents its continuing pivot away from western countries, with Australia and New Zealand holding little influence or leverage. “They’ve been replaced by the Chinese, by the Russians increasingly and, to a lesser extent, by the Indians,” said Buchanan.
“The Fijians will tell you that it is merely a case of not putting all of their eggs into one basket because they believe they’ve learned the hard way that dependency on just one or two larger powers has not served their national interests,” he added.
So want does Russia want in return?
For Moscow, the transfer may have begun as “simply transactional”, Jenny Hayward-Jones, the director of the Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institute, told The Guardian. “But it would be naive to say that Russia does not have intentions. And it will be aware of the perceptions this will create.”
Buchanan, meanwhile, believes this is an ongoing battle for political influence in the region. “I think this is an opening pawn move in what’s going to be a much longer chess game,” he said.