By James Hurndell
U.S. ambassador to Fiji Frankie Reed on October 30 announced that the United States would lift sanctions on Fiji and seek opportunities for reengagement with the Fijian military. While Fiji has an operationally experienced and sizeable military by South Pacific standards, it lacks modern equipment and training, and its force structure has been shaped more by participation in UN operations abroad than by its own national security needs. This presents the United States with a range of opportunities for constructive military-to-military cooperation, of which building the capacity of the Fijian navy is most congruent with U.S. strategic interests.
Fiji has allowed its army to grow faster and larger than its navy because of the former’s ability to generate revenue through participation in UN peacekeeping operations. One estimate calculates that Fiji generated over $300 million from peacekeeping operations in the 30 years prior to 2009. As a consequence, the army’s size is no longer in proportion to its security needs. It currently has 3,200 infantry with a further 6,000 reserves while the navy has lagged behind with only five inshore patrol boats manned by 300 sailors.
But the factors that have enabled Fiji to maintain this imbalance are changing and it is time to reconsider how resources are distributed within the Fijian military.
Fiji continues to enjoy a benign regional security environment, but increasing pressure on its marine resources necessitates a more active regional presence. The recent Operation Kurukuru—an annual multinational sweep of Pacific waters to combat illegal fishing—netted a record 12 ships committing violations in two weeks. Climate change is also increasing the incidence of severe weather events which call for greater maritime capabilities. While most Pacific states rely on Australia and New Zealand to take the lead on these issues, Fiji’s newfound foreign policy emphasis on independence and regional leadership suggests it will need to take a different approach.
Australia on June 17 announced plans to invest a further $1.8 billion into its Pacific Patrol Boat program, which provides inshore patrol vessels to Pacific Island states, including Fiji, that lack the resources to acquire them independently. A complementary U.S. focus on building the capacity of the Fijian navy could have a significant multiplier effect. Washington not only has maritime assets in the region, but also has an interest in strengthening institutions that help preserve international rules and norms at sea—something not at the top of the agenda for some of Fiji’s other suitors such as China.
States are rushing to seek greater engagement with the Fijian military, many for the narrow interests of securing political capital in an important Pacific nation. Engaging in a broader fashion—one that emphasizes developing the capacity needed by the Fijian navy—offers a low-risk way for the United States to demonstrate to a newly-democratic Fiji the advantages and benefits of engaging with a resident power with similar values.