Russia’s Interests in Oceania
In the past years, Russia’s foreign policy has been focused on expanding influence in the most remote corners of the planet. In particular, the Russian party has successful relations with the small island states of Oceania located in the South Pacific and with Fiji in particular.
Until recently, in the mid-2000s, the South Pacific Region (SPR) was mainly controlled by the three players: the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Currently, the US position is characterized by the last-gasp efforts of Washington to keep the control over strategically important territories in Micronesia, which have been gradually seized by China that has already merged the rest of Oceania. The only place in the US influence area untouched by the Chinese capital is Guam. It hosts the largest US air and naval bases in the Pacific Ocean with bombers and submarines, as well as ballistic missiles directed at North Korea. The weakening of the US financial positions in the SPR started after the global economic crisis in 2008 when the empty niches were occupied by China, which was pursuing economic and political goals in Oceania, not the military ones so far. Alongside with China, the Russian Federation started to explore Oceania by strengthening its international image here.
Out of 26 entities of Oceania, 13 are the full-fledged members of the UNO and other international organizations. As a result, friendly relations with these states bring only benefits – for a very small by world standards donor assistance worth only a few tens of million dollars, which the partners of the countries of Oceania allocate to them in the framework of the development programs.
The active strengthening of the ties between Russia and China presupposes the common interests, and, consequently, the formulation of a well-coordinated political course in respect of the «developing» part of the world. Beijing has chosen the largest and the most significant state – Fiji – as its main ally in Oceania. Moscow is not sitting idle; it is developing multilateral cooperation with Suva, the capital of Fiji.
Fiji occupies a special place in the structure of relationships in the South Pacific Region. This is the largest state of Oceania (after Papua New Guinea) with the population of about 1 million people, which plays a significant role in the regional politics. In particular, Suva hosts the headquarters of the main regional organization – the Pacific Islands Forum. However, after 2006, Fiji became an “outcast” in Oceania because the leading donor powers in the SPR (Australia, New Zealand and the United States) rejected the regime established in the country as a result of a coup d’etat that the West considered “undemocratic.” At the initiative of Australia, Fiji was excluded from the Pacific Islands Forum. In addition, Australia and the United States, Fiji’s main trading partners, imposed economic and other sanctions (in particular, the ban on arms sales to the country).
The imposition of the sanctions was a fatal mistake since the Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama did not resign after the coup. He is still in power enjoying the confidence and support of the citizens. Considering the sad consequences of the two previous coups amid an extremely complicated ethnopolitical situation, it was his leadership style that was able to prevent a civil war and ensure political stability due to his thoughtful reforms. Only eight years later, in 2014, it became possible to hold democratic parliamentary elections in the country, after which F. Bainimarama was re-elected as the Prime Minister by the overwhelming majority. After that, Australia and the United States lifted sanctions, and the doors of the Pacific Islands Forum opened again for Fiji.
However, there was no instantaneous restoration of good-neighborly relations. During the eight years of the sanctions regime, F. Bainimarama had to diversify international relations in foreign policy getting closer to states far from the problems of Oceania for the development of trade and economic ties. After all, the sanctions hurt the economy of Fiji, which the new government had to maintain in new conditions with new partners. The main of such partners was China, which literally saved the country’s economy from a collapse. When the Western sanctions were lifted in late October 2014, in November, for the first time in history, China’s leader Xi Jinping visited Fiji. This visit marked the consolidation of already strong relations between Fiji and China. Now, most of the goods are imported to the country from the PRC. The country supports its economy with Chinese loans and develops its infrastructure with the help of Chinese investment.
Simultaneously, Fiji built a mutually beneficial dialogue at the governmental level with the Russian Federation.
In February 2012, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made his first visit to Fiji. The Western media immediately stated that this visit was nothing more than a “Russian campaign to collect signatures for the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” Similar speculations were related to the fact that a tiny state of Nauru established diplomatic relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in December 2009. In November 2017, the President of Nauru Baron Vaca flew to Sochi to meet with S. Lavrov and visited Abkhazia after it (provoking Georgia’s indignation about this fact).
In fact, S. Lavrov’s visit to Fiji in 2012 was a part of his tour to the countries of the Asia-Pacific Region on the eve of the APEC Summit in Vladivostok. This visit was the first in the history of Russia’s relations with this island state since 1974. Based on the results of the meeting, they signed an agreement on quotas for Fijian students wishing to receive education in the Russian Federation (at the expense of the host country). The main issue was a visa-free regime between the two countries, which was introduced a year later, in July 2013, after a visit of F. Bainimarama to Moscow where he met with the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. After it, an intergovernmental agreement on the military and technical cooperation was concluded, under which Russia supplied Fiji 20 containers of small arms and ammunition for it in 2016 to equip the Fijian motorized infantry battalion, that was a part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) stationed in the Golan Heights.
In addition, among the merits of the Russian diplomacy in Oceania, we should mention the signing of visa-free agreements with Nauru in 2014, with Vanuatu in 2016, with Samoa and the Federated States of Micronesia in 2017. The entry to the Cook Islands, The Marianas Islands, Guam, Palau, Niue, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Pitcairn for the Russian tourists is significantly simplified.
The interaction of the Russian party with the countries of Oceania is carried out not only at the official but also at the informal level. In 2017, the world’s mass media circled the news that Kiribati might allow a Russian businessman, a former State Duma deputy and the leader of the Monarch Party Anton Bakov to buy three uninhabited islands to create the Russian Empire to be ruled by Emperor Nicholas III (Prince Karl- Emich Leiningen, a direct descendant of the Russian Emperor Alexander II, a member of the Romanov Emperor’s House). A. Bakov planned to pay $20 million a year to the Kiribati budget for six years and subsequently invest another $230 million in the infrastructure projects. However, after long deliberation, the Kiribati government declined this offer.
Thus, Oceania is still a rather exotic corner of the planet for Russia, but its far territories are getting closer in the light of a new geopolitical reshuffle that is weakening the positions of the USA and its allies – Australia and New Zealand – amid China’s growing influence in the region. The successful cooperation between Russia and China at the international level as a whole contributes to the creation of a favorable image of Russia and the strengthening of its political weight in Oceania in particular.
Sofia Pale, PhD, Research Fellow of the Center for South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”