Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka has assured Australia that the AUKUS deal has his country’s backing following efforts by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to ease regional concerns over the security pact.
The meeting, which occurred on March 15 during a diplomatic visit in Fiji’s capital Nadi, comes a day after Indonesia and Malaysia issued statements outlining their ongoing concerns with AUKUS.
Indonesia said Australia would need to develop an effective “verification mechanism” to ensure that the deal would not fall foul of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. While Malaysia warned that AUKUS could “potentially trigger an arms race in the region.”
In contrast, Fiji’s Rabuka said he received assurances from Albanese that the acquisition of the nuclear-powered submarines will not prevent Australia from complying with the Treaty of Rarotonga. The Treaty, which entered into force on Dec. 11, 1986, declares the South Pacific a nuclear weapons-free zone.
In response to Rabuka, Albanese said Australia was investing in its capabilities and relationships.
“Thank you for the conversation we had and thank you for your warm support and for confirming that you want a family first approach to security, which is our approach as well,” Albanese said.
Rabuka, who won the prime ministership in December 2022, has been critical of Beijing’s encroachment in the Indo-Pacific region.
He previously said that governments needed to engage in “frank, responsible dialogue” to stop Beijing’s influence have a negative affect on the “peaceful atmosphere” of the region, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
Rabuka also said that he did not expect imminent conflict within the Indo-Pacific, and that he saw the Australian government as a stabilising force in the region, reported The Sydney Morning Herald.
Australia’s Penny Wong Responds to Concerns
In response to Indonesian and Malaysian concerns, Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong has reiterated that the nuclear-powered submarines would not be armed with nuclear weapons.
Wong said that Australia, like Indonesia, shared the same vision for the region, which is to maintain peace and stability.
“Obviously we’ve engaged very closely with our region in the lead up to this and made sure they weren’t blindsided in the way they were under the Morrison government,” Wong said, in a salvo against the former government.
Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said dealing with Beijing’s rapid military build-up was the priority of ushering in the secret deal AUKUS between the United States and the United Kingdom. Morrison said he could be described as “the father” of the AUKUS deal, in an interview with ABC’s 7:30 report.
Under the agreement, Australia will buy three Virginia-class hunter submarines by the early 2030s, with an option to buy two more—perhaps Los Angeles-class attack submarines.
The submarines will be added to Australia’s ageing six submarine Collins-class fleet.
The move comes as democratic allies move to response to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive posture in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea, where it’s building military bases on artificial islands abreast of shipping lanes and air trade routes.
More Defence Investment Needed: Morrison
Morrison has urged the Albanese government to continue boosting its defence investment warning that no country could counter an attack by Beijing.
“We’re a country of just over 25 million people, their defence budget is multiple, multiple, multiple times that of Australia’s,” Morrison said, reported Sky News.
“Being prepared isn’t just having your own capability, it’s having the interlocking alignments and alliances that actually provide the counterbalance to the threat.”
“That is what changes the calculus in the region.”
Morrison argues that Australia’s defence budget needs to reach 2.5 percent of GDP—a marked increase from the current two percent outlined in October’s budget that amounts to $48.7 billion (US$32.5 billion).
Meanwhile, Beijing, which also has nuclear subs, claimed AUKUS would undermine the international non-proliferation system, fuel an arms race, and claimed the deal would “hurt peace and stability in the region.”
Beijing’s growing encroachment in the Indo-Pacific has raised concerns, particularly with Western nations, with the U.S. State Department saying that the CCP is “using military and economic coercion to bully its neighbors, advance unlawful maritime claims, threaten maritime shipping lanes, and destabilise territory along the periphery of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”
“This predatory conduct increases the risk of miscalculation and conflict.
“The United States stands with its Southeast Asian allies and partners to champion a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
On March 16, Admiral John Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said AUKUS would boost its defence capability.
“As good partners, United States and the United Kingdom will go ahead and assist in the ability for Australia to defend themselves,” he said.
“We are intending to move as fast as possible. And as safe as possible.”
On March 17, Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles confirmed that Australia would purchase 220 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the U.S.