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Fears over Fiji’s use of Russian arms

Tuesday 19 January 2016 | Published in Regional

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SUVA – A security analyst says there is concern a Russian shipment of military equipment to Fiji will be used for more than peace keeping abroad.

Last week, containers holding arms, two military trucks and training equipment arrived at Suva Harbour and were taken under heavy security to the Queen Elizabeth Barracks.

The military says the donation from Russia is essential for Fiji’s United Nations peacekeeping missions, as many soldiers are using out-dated weaponry which makes them poorly equipped.

But Dr Paul Buchanan told Radio New Zealand there are reports the consignment includes tear gas and other non-lethal munitions, which could be used as a form of crowd control on the local population.

“The controversy is about the dual use potential of this small arms shipment. Dual use refers to the fact that they could well be used by Fijian peacekeepers in hostile environments abroad but they can also be used as forms of crowd control on the local population.

“And if reports are true that tear gas and other non-lethal munitions were part of this shipment, then the opposition has some reason to be concerned that not all of these arms will be directed to the peacekeepers.

“But as far as arms transfers go, this is a relatively minor event. It follows up on a memorandum of understanding signed last February, and the interesting part to it is that although the MOU referred to military sales from Russia to the Fijian military forces, this has been characterised as a donation, a form of military aid.

“And of course there is no such thing as aid without strings attached. So I would assume that there would be follow ups to this and they may come as early as February when Russian military personnel will arrive in Suva for the formal unveiling ceremony of this arm shipment, and then will stay to train Fijian military personnel in the use of these arms.”

DATELINE PACIFIC: So why would Russia send, donate, military equipment to Fiji? What do they get out of it?

“Well, they are reciprocating on the overtures made by the Fijians over the last ten years under the current president and former authoritarian leader Commodore Bainimarama.

“The Fijians opened up something known as the Look North Policy, looking specifically at Russia, China and India as alternative partners and to replace the void left by Australia, NZ and the US when sanctions were imposed on Fiji after the coup of 2006.

“So this continues the expansion of bilateral ties between Russia and Fiji and it gives Russia not only a diplomatic focal point on the South Pacific but this could well lead to the appearance of Russian naval vessels in Fijian waters doing ports of call in Suva.

“Showing the flag if you will – and allows Russia to project force into the South Pacific after a long period of absence.”

DATELINE PACIFIC: So this strengthening relationship between Russia and Fiji, how does this change regional dynamics? Where does it put Australia and New Zealand in the whole piece?

“The strategic balance in the South Pacific has shifted dramatically over the last ten years – in part because of the counter productive nature impact of the sanctions regime imposed on Fiji after the coup.

“The countries who imposed the sanctions basically cut off their nose despite their face and had no point of leverage, no point of diplomatic overture with the Fijians during the rule of Commodore Bainimarama and now into the diplomatic period.

“And into that void stepped China, Russia and to a lesser extent India. So the strategic shift that was occasioned by the coup and its sequels is now bearing fruit in a form of a much stronger presence on the part of the Russians and the Chinese in the South Pacific then there had been before.

“And that shows the perils of diplomacy, particularly diplomacy that’s in defence of democracy and human rights and the like, when countries attempt to impose sanctions and wind up with no leverage In even small island states that have strong leadership and have available options to them.”

DATELINE PACIFIC: Do you know what the monetary value of the latest consignment would be?

“That’s interesting. Because the opposition says it is an illegal shipment because it didn’t enter the country with the approval of parliament.

“Parliament does not have to be consulted when it comes to arm shipments – they are affairs of the executive branch and I say that because there is speculation as to the specific content.

“And that of course would give us an idea of the exact monetary amount of these arms. All of that will be revealed with the formal unveiling in February.

“If it is true that it is basically infantry squad weapons – for example light machine guns, grenades, that sort of thing as well as tear gas and other non-lethal weaponry, supposedly the consignment includes two heavy trucks and perhaps a helicopter as well as two mobile military workshops – that’s not really big bucks when it comes to military expenditure, so I would imagine that it would be in the low millions at best.

“Now of course that’s assuming that what the Fiji government has said about the nature of these armaments is in fact true but again all will be revealed in February and we can get a better estimate of the costs of these munitions.” - RNZI