One of the Pacific’s key leaders has told Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese he supports the AUKUS agreement during a whistle-stop meeting on Wednesday as the PM continued diplomatic efforts to reassure regional anxieties over the planned acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.
Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka congratulated Albanese on the landmark agreement and was comforted by Albanese’s assurances AUKUS would not breach the Rarotonga treaty, a pact among Pacific nations including Australia to keep the South Pacific free of nuclear weapons.
During their meeting in Nadi, Rabuka appeared to allude to previous conflicts such as World War II which left the Pacific devastated, and the need to preserve peace.
Albanese said although Australia was investing in military capability, it was also investing in relationships.
“Thank you for your warm support and for confirming that you want a family-first approach to security, which is our approach too,” Albanese said.
Rabuka, who returned to power late last year and has been a critic of China, said he did not expect imminent conflict within the region.
The brief bilateral meeting came as Chinese officials attended a briefing for the diplomatic corp in Canberra after failing to take up early invitations for one.
The U.S State Department confirmed it had also briefed the Chinese government about AUKUS in both Beijing and Washington after China’s Foreign Ministry accused the AUKUS partners of going “further down a wrong and dangerous road” and fuelling an arms race.
Malaysia also remains critical of the deal but Indonesia appears to have softened its opposition.
Albanese, government ministers and other senior officials have made more than 60 calls to regional leaders about the $368 billion (US$243 billion) plan to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines with help from the U.S and the UK from the early 2030s.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong said she had offered her Chinese counterpart a briefing following their recent meeting in New Delhi and the embassy in Beijing had reached out as well.
She said the government did not believe China’s assertions that the AUKUS submarines breached the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
China says the transfer of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium is against the treaty but the government maintains the reactors will be delivered to Australia sealed and remain shut for the 30-year life of the submarine. It has been in close consultation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“We’re always happy to be very transparent about our plans. We believe that one of the ways we can deal in the region openly, clearly and to demonstrate our motivation – which is stability and peace – is to be very transparent about our plans,” Senator Wong told the ABC.
Senator Wong said the government had spent a lot of time engaging with Pacific countries on security matters.
“We have engaged with them about AUKUS and we have listened to some of the issues they’ve raised, and obviously nuclear issues are highly sensitive because of the history of the peoples of the Pacific and we respect that and we understand that,” she said.
Rabuka hosted Albanese at the Blackrock military base, which Australia has invested $100 million (US$66 million) to boost training and operations for peacekeeping and humanitarian relief missions in the Pacific.
Albanese was given a traditional sevusevu ceremonial welcome, which included drinking a coconut shell of kava.
Rabuka asked Albanese if he liked the traditional drink after he gulped it down, with Albanese replying it was “very good”.
“You can get it in Marrickville too,” Albanese said to laughter.