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OPINION: A Star Westward Leading?

OPINION: A Star Westward Leading?
December 23
12:11 2014

It may have just been the coincidence of the approach of Christmas but there seemed to be a bit of symbolism in the appearance of three defence visitors to Fiji recently.

Indeed, in just over a week, high-level delegations from three of Fiji’s traditional Western defence partners – Australia, New Zealand and the United States – came calling to look for a new beginning in 2015.

Australia’s vice chief of the Defence Force, vice-admiral Ray Griggs was the first of the ANZUS allies to arrive; beginning his talks on December 8.

Major-General James Pasquarette, the Deputy Commander of the US Army in the Pacific Command from Hawaii was the second to arrive. And, on the 17th, New Zealand’s Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee arrived to talanoa.

The three did not travel together as a caravan but it would have been more than passing strange if they had not discussed their common interests in re-engagement amongst themselves setting out for Suva.

While, apparently there was no frankincense, myrrh or gold, the three delegations did come bearing the promise of future gifts.

Just what the three delegations hoped to achieve may be deduced from the language of the media reporting in their home countries, which tended to be pragmatically optimistic.

The Australia media spoke of a new partnership between the two military forces while New Zealand anticipated the renewal of defence ties.

Any assumption that such a restoration of full military relations might be achieved rapidly or smoothly melted quickly on exposure to the Suva sun when the first of the three delegations arrived.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Qiliho expressed the RFMF’s position on re-engagement when he said, “It’s not just kissing each others on the cheek and pretending that nothing happened. We are here to start all over again.”

His comments raise two critical issues regarding the RFMF perspective on re-engagement with the three former defence partners.

Perhaps the more intractable of the two will be the matter of trust since before trust there will need to be a willingness to trust.

The willingness to trust is an essential feature in any partnership and this fragile commodity was substantially damaged by the eight years of military sanctions.

The damage was not in the mere fact of sanctions against the RFMF.   These were expected after the 2006 coup.   It was the extent and duration of the sanctions that proved so damaging over the last eight years.

The sanctions were not graduated nor subject to a proportionate reduction as the Fiji Government progressed down its roadmap for returning to parliamentary democracy.

The insistence on holding on to sanctions until after the September election had validated Fiji’s return to parliamentary democracy effectively put off on any real re-engagement based on trust.

In consequence, the willingness to trust proved very shallow from the RFMF’s standpoint and it will have to be deepened before there is genuine confidence between and amongst Fiji and the three ANZUS powers.

The second critical consideration for the RFMF is the new relationships it has built up over the years of its defence isolation from its traditional partners.

As Lieutenant-Colonel Qiliho noted to the US delegation, “the RFMF has moved on” and established defence ties with other military forces including China, India, Malaysia, South Korea and Russia.

He added that these are “friendships we do value as they’ve come on board in the last eight years and we’ll never sever those ties’’.

Both these considerations – trust and new friends – will have to be balanced if military relations Fiji and the three ANZUS powers are to be re-engaged effectively.

Achieving a new equilibrium, however, will not be an entirely one-sided exercise. Both ends of the scale have to be balanced to secure real stability.

Given that the three delegations have sought the re-engagement, it is up to the ANZUS powers to make the initial adjustments towards finding a new balance close to the pre-2006 defence relationships.

For Fiji’s part, the “here” of which Lieutenant-Colonel Qiliho spoke when he said, “ We are here to start all over again” is not entirely new ground.

There are aspects of the older relationships that carry over and will have to be considered by the RFMF as it makes its own evaluation on a new balance for the military re-engagement.

Training was the principal area mentioned publicly with regard to the sort of help that could prove useful for confidence building.   This was an essential element of the pre-2006 defence ties based on common experience and practice.

Intelligence sharing has been an important focus for co-operation in the past and one that continued some extent even during the period of sanctions because of its importance to all countries in the region.

However, this area will be caught up with issues of trust as well as the general problem of the regional architecture since Fiji’s relationship with the Pacific Islands Forum is in doubt.

Just what would or could replace information sharing through the PIF’s Regional Security Committee and related mechanisms may not be resolved for some time.

Equipment and materiel was not visibly on the table for the three delegations but the topic will have to be at some point.

This bears the important issue of inter-operability of the RFMF in the field with peacekeeping and at home in the cost of maintaining its own inventory of equipment.

The three delegations have now departed leaving much to consider over the Christmas break and into the new year.

The new geo-politics of the Asia-Pacific century guarantee that the traditional pattern of pre-2006 relations will not be restored in its entirety.

But, whether the ANZUS approaches toward re-engagement will restore a more Westward leaning military orientation will depend on how quickly and thoroughly levels of trust can be rebuilt.



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