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Fiji’s call for a ‘Pacific Brigade’ rejected: ADF

The Australian government will not relax restrictions on foreign nationals serving in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in order to create a “Pacific regiment” made up of Fijians and soldiers from other Pacific island nations.

Fiji's Defence Minister, Inia Seruiratu, mooted such a force during the mid-October visit to the island nation by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Foreign Minister Marise Payne, and senior members of the ADF.

“I know a few years back Australia was in the process of establishing a Pacific regiment... that's something worth considering,” he said.

The Australian government is not keen on the idea.

“The government has given a bit of direction to us just in the sense that the model we use to take on foreign people to join our defence force is one that relies on them getting a visa and then obtaining Australian citizenship,” Chief of Joint Operations, Lieutenant General Greg Bilton, told The Canberra Times.

“They are not going to deviate from that particular arrangement.”

Morrison was making his second visit to Fiji's Blackrock Camp in Nadi this year. The facility is being redeveloped into “a regional hub for military and police forces, and peacekeeping training and pre-deployment preparation” at a cost of AUD$28.2 million (FJD$40 million).

It will likely interact closely with the ANU's recently announced Australian Pacific Security College.

The work is a joint effort between the Fijian and Australian defence establishments and is expected to be completed by the end of next year (2020).

Australia outbid China to become Fiji's “development partner” during a fierce competition to win the island nation's favour in August 2018. Both the win, and the project itself, are seen as a vital plank in Australia's “step up” in the Pacific.

Australia and China gave the Fijians valuable maritime assets in the lead up to the final decision.

Canberra is committed to supplying two new Guardian Class Pacific Patrol Boats worth almost $30 million (US$20 million) under its Pacific Patrol Boat Replacement (SEA 3036) programme by the end of next year.

Beijing is reported to have provided Suva with a “surveillance and hydrographic vessel”.

The Lowy Institute's Christopher Mudaliar, writing last October, said the decision in Australia's favour may mark a significant shift in relations between both Fiji and Canberra and Fiji and Beijing.

“The Republic of Fiji Military Forces chief of staff for co-ordination, Captain Eroni Duaibe, said Australia's bid was successful because they took a holistic approach to Blackrock's construction, rather than the “bits and pieces” tabled by China,” he said.

“This comes at a time when Fiji's position between Australia and China within the Pacific is becoming more and more contested.... this is also partly due to the relabelling of the Pacific's strategic status from a place of “small island nations” to that of “large oceanic states” who harbour vast amounts of ocean resources within their maritime borders.”

Mudaliar said despite the decision going Australia's way, Fiji's links with China were still stronger at this point. “How long Fiji can maintain its position between both China and Australia before being burnt remains to be seen.”

General Bilton, despite the obvious tensions, is upbeat about Blackrock and what it means for the region even though the Pacific regiment is off the table.

“What I think we can do, that might be more effective, certainly in my view, is to continue to work with our partners to help them train and continue to build their own capability and capacity," he said.

“Investments like the one we're making at Blackrock are about working with our Fijian partners to provide a better level of education and training for UN missions that Fiji will undertake. Where other countries, other island nations, come to use that facility as well there is a spinoff.”

General Bilton said the Indonesian military had already expressed an interest in linking Black Rock, which will train around 500 military and police personnel a year, with their own peacekeeping training centre.

“You start to build a network,” he said.

Australian troops recently trained at Blackrock ahead of a joint ADF-RFMJ peacekeeping deployment to the Golan Heights.

Australian aid to Fiji in 2019-2020 is expected to total almost $60 million (US$40 million).

Fiji has been participating in UN peacekeeping missions for more than 40 years. A total of 53 Fijian soldiers have been killed performing this task.


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