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Interview: Fiji continues to look north for military cooperation

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2017

A RNZAF NH90 in a cyclone-affected FijiA RNZAF NH90 in a cyclone-affected Fiji


In this exclusive Line of Defence interview, Anna Powles of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, argues that New Zealand needs to be heeding the winds of geopolitical change in the Pacific.


In a paper published last year by the Lowy Institute, Dr Powles and co-author Jose Sousa-Santos argued that security orthodoxy in the Pacific Islands region was changing, with new external actors playing a greater role in the region and placing Australia’s and New Zealand’s influence in the region at risk.

Nowhere in the region had New Zealand’s influence become more blighted than in Fiji, where Canberra and Wellington’s failed sanctions regime had created a strategic relationship vacuum that other players have eagerly filled.

But much has happened since early 2016 when Russia’s donation of a large cache of weapons to Fiji indicated that Suva’s traditional strategic relations had hit rock bottom. An increased tempo of military and security cooperation between New Zealand and Fiji and Fiji’s participation in this year’s South Pacific Defence Ministers Meeting suggest that things are on the improve. So, what is the current state of play?


LoD: Since your piece "Principled Engagement: Rebuilding defence ties with Fiji" was published by the Lowy Institute in mid-2016, the post-TC Winston recovery effort has more or less run its course, Australia has sold Bushmaster vehicles to the RFMF, NZ has seconded inshore patrol vessels to Fiji, and Fiji has joined the South Pacific Defence Ministers Meeting. In light of these, concerns raised by the Russian donation of weapons to Fiji in Feb 2016 seem a distant memory... or are they?


AP: The Russian donation of weapons to Fiji in 2016 was a reflection of the rising influence in the Pacific of non-traditional partners in the military and security spheres and the geopolitical shift the region has experienced in the past five years. This in turn reflects Australia and New Zealand's diminishing influence in the region - diminishing because there are new powers with long-term strategic interests in the region and New Zealand and Australia are facing greater competition for access and influence.

Is Russia one of those powers? Perhaps but not yet. The significance of the 2016 gift from Moscow was not that it represented the tip of the spear, so to speak, of Russian overtures in the region. The military aid is not part of a coherent robust strategy by Moscow to curry influence in the Pacific for greater geopolitical gain – although of course it was certainly all about influence over altruism.

The real significance of the gift was because it reflected the new geopolitical currency in the region.  The rise of so called non-traditional or periphery partners from the Pacific Rim (and beyond) engaged in ad hoc patron-client type activities which may have long-term implications depending on other geopolitical dynamics. 


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LoD: New Zealand has also been much more heavily involved recently in the training of Fiji law enforcement, including police training on clearance of major events, and police and customs detector dog training. Is this part of the thawing of relations or rather a new focus on regional cooperation in law enforcement?


AP: New Zealand's deeper engagement is a reflection of both a thawing of relations as a consequence of the lifting of sanctions and the normalisation of relations with Fiji in 2014 and the ongoing strengthening of regional cooperation in law enforcement. Rebuilding and reinforcing relations with the Fijian security sector, is one way of demonstrating Wellington's commitment to normalising relations with engaging with the Bainimarama Government.

The level of engagement with the police and customs is not overly significant yet; the approach remains cautious. Engaging with the police and customs is a soft security approach; relatively apolitical as New Zealand gets a feel for the temperature of the relationship.

The focus on regional law enforcement is not new but it is widely recognised that Fiji is a critical hub and a key partner - particularly when it comes to combating transnational crime. It is essential that Pacific Islands Forum member countries and partners seek to strengthen cooperation in accordance with the Nasonini and Honiara Declarations.


LoD: In May, Fiji closed its representative office in Taiwan, and PM Bainimarama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing during the Belt and Road Summit. Is there a real defence dimension to the China-Fiji relationship, or is it about investment, fisheries, tourism and support in international forums?


AP: The strategic partnership between China and Fiji is certainly about foreign direct investment (about 45% of FDI in Fiji this year alone originated in China), trade, Fiji's largest development assistance partner, access to resources (fisheries and extractives), and tourism (which has increased tenfold from just over 4,000 in 2009 to over 40,000 in 2015 making China the biggest source of tourists for Fiji).

The economic benefits for Fiji are significant but this also creates a high level of vulnerability. So, in exchange, Fiji has supported China's stance on issues such as the South China Sea dispute in international fora, and, as you noted, recently clearly demonstrated on which side of the Taiwan Straits Fiji's loyalties lie. 

Since the signing of an MOU between Fiji and China in 2013 which marked closer cooperation and technical assistance between the RFMF and PLA, the defence dimension of the relationship has been slowly growing. This has included RFMF officers attending Nanjing Army Command College, and PLA training of Fijian soldiers - leading to some concerns within the United Nations that the calibre of training the RFMF is receiving from China is having an impact on Fiji's peacekeeping reputation.

There are also the promises of deeper mil-to-mil cooperation including counter terrorism training as well prospects including Chinese drones to be used to fight crime in Fiji, offers to build a new naval base in Fiji, as well as, of course, rumoured Chinese support for the proposed Blackrock Integrated Peacekeeping Centre in Fiji.

What's significant about the defence dimension to the Fiji-China relationship is not the size of its military assistance programme to Fiji (which is small) but rather that it reflects the geopolitical shifts within the region; the shift away from the traditional security orthodoxy and partners Australia and New Zealand, and the increase of Chinese influence on new generations of RFMF officers and defence policy makers.

From a Chinese perspective, Fiji is strategically important. The Chinese fishing fleet operating out of Fiji is said to provide cover for signals intelligence monitoring, particularly of United States' bases in Micronesia. What will be interesting is whether the militarisation – or securitisation – of China's Belt and Road will extend to the Pacific in the search for goods and markets.


LoD: Ultimately, to what extent does PM Bainimarama have an interest in eroding the traditional influence of Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific? Is Fiji's view to the north starting to fade, or is it there to stay, and what are the implications for NZ-Fiji defence ties?


AP: PM Bainimarama's stance that Australian and New Zealand influence in the Pacific Islands Forum, specifically, and the region broadly, should be curbed if not curtailed reflects a wider frustration that is shared by some others in the region.

Although Bainimarama's efforts to have Australia and New Zealand thrown out of the Pacific Islands Forum were unsuccessful, he tapped into a regional frustration that Australia and New Zealand do not genuinely share the same priorities and concerns as Pacific states - Wellington and Canberra's position on climate change at the 2015 Pacific Islands Forum is one example of this.

Is Bainimarama successfully managing to erode Australia and New Zealand's influence? Not necessarily. But should Canberra and Wellington sit up and listen to the winds of change and resistance in the Pacific? Absolutely.

Fiji's look north policy is certainly not fading. The implications for NZ-Fiji ties include reduced influence as a consequence of cadres of RFMF officers whose key relationships are no longer exclusively with its traditional allies (NZ, Australia, UK). It's not too late to rebuild those ties however there are also deeper pockets in town. 


Dr Anna Powles is a Senior Lecturer at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies and founding member of the Security, Politics and Development Network. Her research expertise is in geopolitics, conflict and security in the Pacific region; regional peacekeeping, private military and security companies, civil-military relations, and women, peace and security. 


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