Fiji’s strategic pivot.

Last week Fiji took delivery of a shipment of Russian weapons that were “donated” by Russia pursuant to a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in February 2015. The Fijians say that the weapons are needed by Fijian peacekeepers in places like the Middle East because what they currently have in their inventory is obsolete. The shipment 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 in February in front of a Russian delegation that will include military trainers who will remain in Fiji to instruct Fijian military personnel in their proper usage.

Fijian opposition figures believe that the shipment is illegal because it was not approved by Parliament and that it could be used against domestic opponents of the current, military-backed government. Let me briefly outline the issues.

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 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. Given the Fijian Military Forces history, that is a very real possibility.

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 the introduction of military helicopters into a regional rivalry is bound to cause alarm in the Kingdom.

Although Fijian military inventories may well be obsolete (meaning Vietnam era US weapons), 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 the claim that the Russian arms are needed for peacekeeping is debatable at best.

The MOU with Russia also outlines 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 doing 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 with a basing agreement for one or both.

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, 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).

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 that was hoped for at the time of imposition. The result is a greatly diminished diplomatic influence and leverage 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.

3 thoughts on “Fiji’s strategic pivot.

  1. Many New Zealanders remain confused about the nature of the Bainamarama regime and the interests it upholds, and some choose to see it as representing the collapse of the democratic institutions established by the British colonial authorities in the pre-independence era. The truth is that it is the natural (one hesitates to say inevitable) consequence of the carefully crafted and balanced socio-economic system put in place by the British. New Zealanders (or at least those of us who failed to examine the situation in depth) deceived themselves into thinking that the Fijian military with their Sandhurst connections would somehow be different to other military castes (for that is what they are) and would present no threat to civil society or popular government in Fiji or elsewhere in the Pacific region. The fact is that the Fiji military will do whatever it takes to perpetuate their role as the major and dominant element in Fijian society. That may include alliances with Russia or China, or anyone else willing to do business with the regime.

  2. Interesting points Geoff.

    What I also find interesting is that the Fijian Defence Forces have managed to avoid so far a problem for most military authoritarians: that of losing combat skills during the time they are running civilian bureaucracies. They have done so by using UN peacekeeping as a means of keeping officers as well as enlisted personnel sharper than they otherwise would be. Moreover, the regular rotation of troops spreads the UN pay around in form of remittances to villages, which, since the Fijian military is almost completely staffed by indigenous Fijians, helps keep the peace in the country side. So peacekeeping duties not only allowed Fiji to skirt the sanctions regime. It also is a major means of keeping loyalty within the rank and within the public associated with the military while at the same time keeping the pointy end of the stick fairly well sharpened.

    However, corruption under Bainimarama and Sayed-Khaiyum is starting to receive considerable attention. Corruption has clearly crept into the flag and field officer ranks as well as throughout the Police and civil service. The more this continues, the more it will erode military professionalism (such as it is) and foster public resentment.

    The Chinese and Russians, who may not have too much of a problem with dealing with official corruption, could wind up ruing the day that they embraced Frank and his crowd should things hit the fan. So they may have to explore their options down the road.

  3. The condition for survival of a military caste is that it be as large as the state can afford to make it, and that it be as representative as possible of the population as a whole.
    As you suggest, for Fiji the first condition is met in part by the UN peace-keeping operations which enable Fiji to maintain a size of military that would place an unsustainable burden on the normal revenues of the state.
    The second condition is at least partly satisfied by the fact that virtually every ethnic Fijian seems to have a son, nephew, uncle or cousin in the military, and that the military has concomitantly assumed the role of protector of certain Indo-Fijian interests.
    Other overly large military forces in post-colonial states – for example Egypt, Indonesia and Burma – survive on the basis of military owned enterprises, particularly commercial monopolies of one kind or another. In the unlikely event that the UN decided it should not be in the business of sustaining a military caste in Fiji, this would be the the only option left open to the Fijian military, and the outcome would be social and political tensions not unlike those experienced in the other post-colonial states named above.
    Russia and China are willing to support the military in Egypt, Burma and Fiji but as you say that will become problematic “should things hit the fan”. And things will hit the fan unless the military in each case accept that they must, like old soldiers, fade away from the political theatre. There is hope of a political resolution for Burma, Egypt seems headed for a brutal and prolonged conflict, but Fiji? It’s a hard call not only for Russia and China but also for the New Zealand authorities.

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