Australian Prime Minister visits Fiji to discuss nuclear submarines and security

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met his Fiji counterpart in Suva on Wednesday to deliver Canberra’s message that its $245 billion nuclear-powered submarine program does not violate its non-proliferation commitments violated by nuclear weapons.

Australia is party to a nuclear-free zone agreement with 12 other South Pacific nations, including Fiji, in a region where sensitivity to nuclear weapons is high due to the fallout from nuclear weapons testing by the United States and France.

The strategically located region has been a focus of rising tensions between the United States and China over Beijing’s ambitions to bolster its security presence.

China this month renewed its diplomatic push for Pacific island nations to work with it on security issues, after a proposed 10-nation deal was rejected in June.

Albanese met with Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka to discuss regional security, a day after the details of the AUKUS submarine program were unveiled in San Diego with US and UK leaders.

Rabuka commended Albanese for “unwavering support as the two nations work together to recover from the pandemic, build defense and security, build economic cooperation, climate change initiatives and protect the oceans and environment,” Fiji’s government said in a statement Explanation.

Australia’s defense officials have said the nuclear submarine fleet is needed as a deterrent to China’s naval buildup.

China has said AUKUS violates a nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which Australia opposes. Australia said on Tuesday the submarines would not carry nuclear weapons.

China’s special envoy for the Pacific Islands Qian Bo this month sought assistance from a sub-regional group of Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands for a security training and support role for China, a statement by the Melanesian Spearhead Group showed.

Qian has visited Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Federated States of Micronesia over the past two weeks. In a March 10 statement, the top official from the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) — an intergovernmental organization of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and a New Caledonian independence party — said they would consider security assistance, including training and equipment from China.

“My members have strongly affirmed that no one will choose their friends or foes for them,” said MSG Director General Leonard Louma.

Australia National University Pacific expert Graeme Smith said Australia was concerned by the statement by the group, which is less powerful than the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum but important to the Melanesian nations.

It is also likely that China will step up its criticism of AUKUS for violating the Pacific nuclear-free treaty in its diplomacy with the Pacific Islands, he said.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaaia Mahuta travels to Fiji on Wednesday, while a US delegation led by White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell will visit the Pacific island nations in the coming days, the US Embassy in Auckland said.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham. Editing by Gerry Doyle)


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