Australia and New Zealand responded rapidly when Cyclone Winston struck Fiji on February 20, 2016. First on the scene was the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) offshore patrol vessel Wellington, carrying a survey craft to help locate suitable landing areas for relief teams. It was followed by the Royal Australian Navy landing platform (helicopter) Canberra, and the RNZN multi-role vessel Canterbury, carrying between them six helicopters, and a large quantity of relief supplies.
Winston inflicted huge damage on many of Fiji’s more than 300 islands, and the Fijians needed much help from specialist teams from these vessels to recover from its effects.
Prior to the ravages of the cyclone, Suva had been pursuing a “Look North” policy of prioritising relations with China and Russia, in response to international sanctions having been imposed upon Fiji in the wake of the 2006 coup d’etat.
Neither Moscow, nor Beijing, though, gave much port-cyclone assistance, giving rise to speculation that the Fijians would, as a result, resurrect military and diplomatic with Canberra and Wellington, its traditional allies.
Concrete evidence of this rapprochement has been provided by the deployment to Fiji of the 340-tonne RNZN inshore patrol vessel Hawea, to Fiji, for an initial period of six months, in order to boost maritime security. The seas around the island group are increasingly plagued by illicit fishing, and the smuggling of cocaine and heroin.
Fiji’s navy, consisting of three Australian-built Pacific Forum patrol boats, and a pair of former offshore supply craft, suffered a crippling blow, in July 2016, when one of its Pacific Forum vessels, Kiro, grounded on Cakauyawa Reef, near Makuluva Island, and was lost. Three Australian-built vessels, to be constructed under Canberra’s Pacific Patrol Boat Replacement project, are due to supplant Fiji’s Pacific Forums by 2019, but the services of Hawea, a modern vessel equipped with three machine guns, and a pair of RHIBs, are urgently required meanwhile.
Under current RNZN plans, incidentally, Hawea and its three sister ships, are due for early retirement, and it is possible that its prolonged high-profile presence in the Pacific Islands might attract the attention of potential purchasers, in a region notably short of maritime security assets.