Russia sells $19M in arms to Fiji

Russia sells $19M in arms to Fiji

Russia's sale of $19 million-worth of weapons to Fiji is seen as an attempt by Moscow to gain a foothold in the Pacific.

One shipment of arms has already arrived in the capital, Suva.

Prime Minister John Key says he has no issues with business between Fiji and Russia, providing it's lawful.

Fiji's military is getting an arms upgrade. The dated M16s and M2s used in the 2006 coup will be replaced with what's believed to be Kalashnikov assault rifles.

"The Russians see themselves as a Pacific power," says University of Canterbury professor Steven Ratuva. "They're trying to get a foothold in the Pacific. Secondly, they want to get access to the region's resources, such as seabed mining and fishing."

So a month ago, a massive shipment of arms from Moscow arrived in Suva. And another one is on the way.

"What they do with each other is up to them as long as it's lawful," says Mr Key.

Fiji's government didn't inform the public of the deal, until the weapons turned up on the dock. But the Defence Minister says that's normal practice.

"Shifting arms and ammunition across the world, it goes through a safety process," says Fiji Defence Minister Timoci Natuva. "You don't have to go around calling people that you are providing ammunition for Fiji."

The Fiji-Russian alliance seems unlikely, but it's been gradually developing over recent years.

Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, indulged in a cup of kava in 2012, during his country's first-ever high-level visit to Fiji.

A year later, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama went to Moscow, and this is when the Russian arms deal was done.

"So it's a new player in as far as the small island states politics is concerned," says Prof Ratuva.

"It needs to establish its presence and expand its influence as well, as a way of telling the world, 'I'm not gone.'"

The weapons are intended for Fijian peacekeepers serving in UN missions, but there are concerns they could be used domestically as well.

"The worry is that Fiji has had a history of coups, and with new weapons, it will simply reinforce the power of the military," says Prof Ratuva.

"It depends on what that weaponry is going to be used for," says Mr Key. "Our main point really when it comes to Fiji and any Pacific countries is that whatever they do with anyone else is a matter for them, as long as they understand that the responsibility rests with them."

Economic and historical links between New Zealand and Fiji remain strong, despite Russia and especially China expanding their influence in the country. Mr Key described New Zealand's relationship with Fiji as "definitely improving", and he is considering a trip there at some stage this year.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully says Fiji is a major global peacekeeping contributor, so it's understandable the it would seek to have a well-equipped military. The military shipment "is not, on its own, a cause for concern".


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