Australia beats China to funding Fiji base

The RFMF band performing at the Army's training ground in Black Rock, Nadi in this file picture. The camp will be redeveloped and transformed into a regional hub for police and peacekeeping training and pre-deployment preparation. Picture: FT FILE

SUVA/CANBERRA, 13 SEPTEMBER 2018 (THE AUSTRALIAN) – Australia successfully blocked China from funding a major ­regional military base in Fiji, a move that reveals intensifying concern in Canberra over strategic competition in the South Pacific region.

In a move to outbid China to secure the rights as the sole foreign donor of the Fiji Military Forces’ Black Rock Camp in Nadi, the ­Coalition government has contributed a “significant” figure for the facility to be transformed into a regional training hub for South Pacific militaries.

Beijing’s rival bid, confirmed by the Fijian Defence Force, came amid Australian government fears of China gaining a military presence in the region, notably in Vanuatu, although that country’s government denies this was on the cards.

Australia has previously provided Fiji with protected mobility Bushmaster vehicles and last ­November committed $2 million (US$1.4 million) towards the Black Rock redevelopment. Late last month, during the week of the tumultuous leadership spill, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull distributed a media release announcing Australia would fund the whole base, which he said would create “stronger inter­-operability between the Australian Defence Force and the Republic of Fiji Military Forces”.

The Fiji Military Forces’ chief staff officer for co-­ordination, Captain Eroni Duaibe, said Australia had “played its cards right” and went over and above to trump China’s bid.

“Let me put it this way: the development of Black Rock has been backlogged for quite some time now due to financial restraints,” Captain Duaibe told The Australian.

“China had an interest in that for quite a while but it seems that I would say, I think Australia played their cards right in terms of tabling a holistic offer, something that China was a bit reluctant to … (They were) asking us to do certain parts of the development while they come in as a partner to do other developments.

“But when Australia placed the offer on the table, it was holistic development of Black Rock, not only of the infrastructure development but also the provisions of personnel and training of our troops and providing that expertise in various areas.”

The Australian has been told by senior sources that the government believed China was planning to build an airport at the site. Captain Duaibe denied this. He said, however, that the base could work in co-ordination with Canberra’s proposed Australia Pacific Security College, which Australia hopes to set up by early next year.

“I cannot confirm that to you, but it has been on the agenda at the Pacific Island Forum level and also the military-to-military level.”

The deal to fund the Black Rock base was made by Turnbull and Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. “It was a decision done at a very strategic level, also at the political level where the discussion (was) between our Prime Minister and the Australian prime minister, who at the time was Malcolm Turnbull.”

The Australian and Fijian governments have said the base would be a “regional hub for police and peacekeeping training and pre-­deployment preparation”.

China first improved its ties with Fiji when the Pacific nation was ostracised by the West after Bainimarama claimed power in a 2006 coup. China has previously flagged interest in investing in Fijian military facilities.

In 2015, its then Ambassador to Fiji, Zhang Ping, said he was open to helping Fiji set up a new naval base. “If there is a need from the Fiji side, we will be happy to look at it,” he said, according to a media report. It said Fiji and China had previously signed a memorandum of understanding over military co-operation.

China also donated a new “surveillance and hydrographic” vessel to Fiji’s navy at the same time as the island nation received a re­fitted Australian patrol boat.

Earlier this year, China sent scientific surveillance ship Yuanwang 7 to Fiji on the same day the Australian navy’s HMAS Adelaide was in Suva as part of the Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise.

Fiji has a close policing relationships with China. It signed a police co-operation deal with Beijing’s Ministry of Public Security in 2011 that involves sending Fiji police to China for training.

This year, China gave Fiji 50 police vehicles.

A 2017 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade briefing paper says the Fiji Military Forces, which contribute to UN peacekeeping missions, are among the largest in the Pacific. The report says “credible contacts report military personnel are also involved in monitoring and occasional harassment of opposition political leaders, NGO activists, and the media.”

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