The Opaque Pacific: Fiji’s Essential Maritime Services Hub

USCGC William Hart patrols American Samoa. Photo source: USCG – Public domain

With China constantly accused of insufferable secrecy and a lack of openness about security and defense agreements between Pacific partners, the shoe, when on the other foot, is just as good. In the case of Australia, it is particularly cozy. We’re not exactly clear on the fine print of the AUKUS security arrangement between Canberra, Washington and London, even though we all know it involves nuclear propulsion technology for submarines.

We also know little, officially speaking, about the US intelligence center at Pine Gap in central Australia, although enough work has been done for us to realize how heavily Australia is involved in defence. American – or is it a violation? – strategy.

In the case of the latest developments in Fiji, Australia is now playing a murky role in funding a proposed defense facility at Lami, although Canberra is keen to avoid military intent. While there was a lot of fuss about the Chinese not consulting the good people of the Solomon Islands about a possible military base, the people of Lami were certainly kept in the dark about the construction of the Maritime Essential Services Center (MESC), with Australian money, which will be located near their homes.

Some A$83 million is being invested in the facility, which will be located on Naimawi Street. announcement July 14 between Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Josaia V. Bainimarama of Fiji was not exactly rowdy. But he promised “a major infrastructure project to boost Fiji’s maritime capabilities”. The MESC would house the country’s naval headquarters, the Suva Coast Radio Station, the Fiji Maritime Surveillance Coordinating Center and the Fiji Hydrographic Service.

The announcement came with its usual plush promises: jobs for Fijian construction companies, jobs for local workers, all in support of the country’s recovery from COVID-19. From an Australian perspective, the measure will help Fiji respond “to natural disasters, protect local fishing industries and increase naval and coastal rescue capabilities”. The Fiji Prime Minister, for his part, expressed his “sincere gratitude to our Australian Vuvale” for their continued support. (Albanese, for his part, spoke of the “Pacific family,” a term that works under paternalistic suggestiveness.)

According to Bainimarama, the center appeared to be multi-purpose, providing a monitoring facility for Fijian waters, and would “secure our blue economy from internal and external threats”. It would also be part of an “expansion of our marine protected areas on our journey towards achieving 100% ocean sustainability – to name a few.”

Albanese’s talking points focused on Fiji’s security and prosperity, stressing the importance of local fishing industries and the environmentally sound nature of the facility “designed to withstand natural disasters”.

The Australian Ministry of Defense is almost bother to ring environmentally conscious and eco-conscious. “Design [of the MESC] is environmentally sustainable and adapts to the climatic requirements of construction in Suva, Fiji. Apparently, it promises to be “nearly self-sufficient in water and electricity with solar panels and water retention systems to be built”. Believe it when you see it.

On ABC’s Pacific Beat, local residents were invited on their point of view on the installation. A certain Donato, who lives and works in Lami, did not disagree in principle. The location was what troubled him. “In terms of emergency or war, the problem will be that citizens could be a victim if the naval base is targeted.” His humble point of view: move the base away from a residential area “so that it does not camouflage itself among the citizens of the country”.

A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Defense, showing an age-old pattern in these questions, dismissed the concerns as misinformed babble. The Lami community had been consulted – in fact, it had started in 2019, but what exactly it involved, the spokesperson did not say. “The Fijian Government is, and will remain, the primary agency for any engagement with the local Lami community.”

That would suggest little commitment. The fiji times Remarks several consultations, but remains oblique on the level of involvement of local residents who would be directly impacted by the site. The first consultation took place in July 2019, the next in December 2021, followed by a “local industry engagement forum in February 2022”. There was also a sevusevu (a ceremonial gift as part of Fijian protocol) to landowners in July and “further consultations in August”.

It would seem from this account that the inhabitants of Lami were only informed in more detail during the fourth consultation session held at Lami Parish Hall, conducted by the Ministry of Defence, National Security and Police. But when representatives of the Australian government and the project’s contractor braved a local audience in early August, the reception proved chilling.

Relevant, questions were asked as to why the Lami siders were not consulted when plans for the proposed site were already being drawn up two years ago. There were also concerns about congestion, the safety of children and grandchildren given the site’s proximity to the local primary school, and the dangers posed by construction work. Questions were also asked about the risks of property devaluation.

The Australian representatives were hardly overflowing with information. The Australian High Commission preferred to answer outraged queries via email, and even then ignored most of them. It was all part of Australia’s wider infrastructure plan for the Pacific regarding sea and land facilities, and locals would do their best to appreciate it. “The project is expected to generate $55 million in labor and construction revenue for the Fijian community.” And add 445 jobs.

Residents we also said, almost condescendingly, that their location had to be chosen. The MESC could not, for example, be built in Togalevu due to “soil integrity issues”. Nor would it be built on the site of the Bilo Battery gun, given its national heritage status. In addition, the Australian Prime Minister has already claimed that A$56.2 million would be pumped directly into the economy, and with that, the miracle of 400 jobs, although both of these numbers remain, at this point, astrological rather than verifiable.

Those in Lami have also been promised that no weapons or ammunition will be kept at the proposed MESC site, although this is by no means a certainty. Fiji Ministry of Defense officials said the project was not intended to “militarize the area in any way”. It wasn’t exactly reassuring. With the recent fuss and barking from Canberra about China’s growing footprint in the Pacific, and the decision of states such as the Solomon Islands to go further with Beijing, those in Lami could have every right to worry. The environmental and political temperature is rising.

Michelle J. Kelley