Fiji’s prime minister said Wednesday on a visit to Australia’s capital that his government was “more comfortable dealing with traditional friends” such as Australia as China pursues closer security ties in the Asia-Pacific region.
Sitiveni Rabuka and Australia’s Anthony Albanese met during the Fijian’s first state visit to Australia since he most recently came to power in December last year. The 75-year-old former army colonel and coup leader had previously been Fiji’s prime minister from 1992 until 1999.
Rabuka sided with Australia in what he described as the “rivalry” and “one-upmanship“ between the United States and China.
“We’re more comfortable dealing with traditional friends, that we have similar systems of government, that our democracies are the same brand of democracy, coming out of the Westminster system,” Rabuka told reporters.
“Our justice system, our policing system -- we’re more comfortable with friends that we have had over a longer period,” Rabuka added.
But Rabuka cautioned against countries appearing to be aggressive toward friends and neighbors with whom they had cordial relations.
The two leaders announced several developments in their bilateral relationship including an elevation of the Fiji-Australia Vuvale Partnership, a 2019 agreement on closer cooperation, consultation and friendship.
Australia agreed to sell Fiji 14 Australian-built Bushmaster armored military vehicles and to reach an agreement on cybersecurity cooperation.
Albanese said Australia would provide Fiji with more financial support to help economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic devastated the country’s tourism industry.
Rabuka said Fiji’s tourist numbers and tourism income had rebounded to pre-COVID levels, with Australia the largest source of visitors.
Australia and the United States have stepped up their engagement with the region since last year when China struck a security pact with the Solomon Islands that raised concerns of a Chinese naval base being established in the South Pacific.
China has also proposed a region-wide security and economic deal with Pacific Island nations but several countries have resisted.
Rabuka said he had been “honored” when Albanese phoned him in March to say that Australia, the United States and Britain would announce in San Diego the following day an agreement on nuclear-powered submarines.
Under the AUKUS agreement, Australia will buy three Virginia-class submarines from the United States and build five new AUKUS-class submarines in cooperation with Britain in response to China’s growing influence.
Rabuka said Albanese had called to alert him of the deal “because we’re family.”
But during a discussion on the AUKUS deal on Tuesday, Rabuka stopped short of endorsing the increased military cooperation.
“I was not part of the planning. I’m in no position to try to stop it. This is a tripartite strategic project,” Rabuka said.
“All I can do is hope that this project will assist the concept of the zone of peace in the Pacific,” he said.
Rabuka plans to ask that the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum endorse his zone of peace proposal at a meeting in the Cook Islands in November.
The proposal could include nations refraining from actions that jeopardize regional order and stability while respecting neighbors’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, he said.