Nadi, Fiji: A key Pacific nation has indicated early support for the AUKUS deal after Prime Minister Anthony Albanese used a stopover in Fiji to press the case for his plan for nuclear-powered submarines.
The day after both Indonesia and Malaysia aired concerns at the sweeping plan, Albanese met Fijian counterpart Sitiveni Rabuka on Wednesday to assure him the pact would help ensure regional stability.
Albanese was welcomed with full honours at the Blackrock military camp in Nadi and drank kava as a guest of honour while assembled soldiers, some in traditional dress, watched on.
The cup of kava, an earthy, bitter drink previous visitors have found difficult to keep down, was handed to Albanese soon after former prime minister Paul Keating denounced the AUKUS pact in remarks from Sydney to the National Press Club in Canberra.
“Thank you for your warm support and for confirming that you want a family-first approach to security, which is our approach as well,” Albanese said to Rabuka in their first remarks.
Later, in a formal bilateral meeting, Rabuka mentioned the statement by Albanese in announcing the next phase of AUKUS in the United States the previous day.
“It reinforced the feeling we’ve always had when we look back over the conflict the world has entered into in the past,” he said, before pool reporters were ushered out of the room.
In a briefing later, a senior member of the Australian government said the message from the Fijian leader was that he supported the AUKUS agreement and Fiji’s ties with its traditional security partners.
Rabuka is seen by the Australian government as a stabilising force in the region given his role in persuading Kiribati to return to the Pacific Island Forum.
Albanese is expected to attend the next annual island forum summit of 18 member states, rumoured likely to be in October.
In another sign of Australia’s effort to keep Pacific nations on side, Albanese will meet Samoan prime minister Afioga Fiame Naomi Mataafa when she visits Australia in the next fortnight.
Albanese landed in Nadi in the Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A transport plane on his way home from the AUKUS announcement in San Diego, but his visit was limited to the meeting with Rabuka while the aircraft refuelled.
Rabuka held their meeting at the Blackrock base, a facility completed last year after a $100 million investment from Australia.
Albanese spoke to Rabuka in recent days about the AUKUS agreement, one of dozens of calls he made to country leaders, but the meeting on Wednesday was their first face-to-face meeting.
Rabuka, 74, was elected last December and returned to the prime ministership after a long career in Fijian politics that included leading two military coups in 1987. He was prime minister from 1992 to 1997.
He criticised the “colonial” thinking of Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States in remarks to the ABC soon after taking office, but he also expressed caution about China.
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