The Defence Ministers of Fiji and Australia met virtually on 24 November 2020 for the second annual Defence Ministers’ Meeting.
The Honourable Inia Seruiratu, Fijian Minister of Defence, National Security & Policing and Senator the Honourable Linda Reynolds CSC, Australian Minister for Defence noted that despite the challenges of 2020, the bilateral relationship had gone from strength to strength.
“This year, Australia and Fiji have worked shoulder-to-shoulder in response to significant challenges in our region from COVID-19 to Tropical Cyclone Harold,” Minister Reynolds said.
“Fiji’s swift and welcome response in deploying the Bula Force to support Australia during the Black Summer Bushfires will never be forgotten.”
In recognition of the growing sophistication of defence engagement between Fiji and Australia, the Ministers announced the commencement of negotiations for a reciprocal Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
This landmark bilateral agreement will facilitate Fijian and Australian defence personnel to undertake exchanges, deployments, and exercises in each other’s jurisdiction.
“The deployment of Bula Force to Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST earlier this year reinforced the importance of being able to move quickly to support one another, when required,” Minister Seruiratu said.
“A SOFA will facilitate the rapid deployment of our respective personnel to one another’s jurisdictions with the requisite legal protections.”
Ministers also discussed new ways to progress maritime security cooperation in the region and agreed that Australia would fund the construction of the Maritime Essential Services Centre (MESC) in Fiji.
Minister Reynolds said Australia was pleased to be able to support this important investment in critical infrastructure in Fiji.
“Australia is committed to funding both the design and construction of the MESC, which will incorporate the Republic of Fiji Navy Headquarters, the Fiji Maritime Surveillance and Rescue Coordination Centre, Coastal Radio and Fiji’s Navy Hydrographic Service,” Minister Reynolds said.
“The new Centre will greatly facilitate maritime security coordination within Fiji and throughout the region. Australia is proud to partner with the Fijian Government on this project.”
Minister Seruiratu also welcomed the timely announcement.
“As with the works at the Blackrock Peacekeeping and Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Camp and the Stanley Brown Wharf, the MESC project will have a positive economic dividend and generate jobs,” Minister Seruiratu said.
Ministers discussed the progress made in the bilateral defence relationship under Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program. Fiji received its first Guardian Class, the RFNS Savenaca, in March 2020 with the second vessel scheduled for handover in 2023.
They also discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the region and the importance of a collective response to the security challenges that were common throughout the Pacific.
“Australia knows that we are stronger together than the sum of our parts,” Minister Reynolds said.
“It makes sense that the Australian Defence Force and Republic of Fiji Military Forces work closely together to develop the capability and interoperability we need to help maintain a resilient and secure region.”
“We will continue to engage with trust, respect, and understanding. Our partnership has strong foundations, we meet as friends and family or ‘vuvale’. Together we can protect our shared interests in the Pacific,” Minister Seruiratu said.
The meeting marked the second annual Defence Ministers’ Meeting between Australia and Fiji. It delivers on a commitment made by Prime Minister’s Morrison and Bainimarama under the Australia-Fiji Vuvale Partnership to hold regular, high-level dialogues.
‘Vuvale’ is the word in the Fijian language for ‘family’.