The opaque Pacific: Fiji’s maritime essential services centre

August 23, 2022
A street in the coastal town of Lami, Fiji, where the Australian government is helping to build a possible military base. Inset: Map of Lami in relation to Suva, Fiji's capital. Photo:

China is constantly being accused of secrecy and a lack of openness about security and “defence” arrangements among partners in the Pacific, but the shoe sits just as well on the other foot. In Australia’s case, it is particularly snug.

We are still not clear about the fine print of the AUKUS security arrangement between Canberra, Washington and London, although we all know it involves nuclear-propulsion technology for submarines.

We also know little, officially speaking, about the US Pine Gap intelligence facility in Central Australia, although enough work has been done for us to realise how Australia is implicated in US defence (or is it offence?) strategy.

It seems Australia is now playing a murky role in funding a proposed defence facility in Lami, Fiji, although Canberra is keen to eschew the military intent.

While there was much fuss kicked up about the Chinese not consulting Solomon Islanders about a possible military base, the residents of Lami were certainly kept in the dark about the construction of the Maritime Essential Services Centre (MESC), with Australian money, that will be located close to their homes.

Some $83 million is going into the facility. The July 14 announcement between Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Fiji PM Josaia V Bainimarama was not exactly a noisy one. But it promised “a major infrastructure project to enhance Fiji’s maritime capabilities”.

The MESC would house the country’s navy headquarters, Suva Radio Coastal Station, Fiji Maritime Surveillance Coordinator Centre and the Fiji Hydrographic Office.

The announcement came with promises for jobs for Fijian construction companies and employment for local workers — all part of supporting the country’s COVID-19 recovery.

From Canberra’s perspective, it will aid Fiji to respond to “natural disasters, protect local fishing industries, and increase naval and coastal rescue capabilities”.

The Fijian prime minister expressed “sincere gratitude to our Australian Vuvale [family]” for ongoing support. (Albanese, also droned on about the “Pacific family”, a term that labours under paternalistic suggestiveness.)

For Bainimarama, the centre will be an all-purpose one, providing a monitoring facility over Fijian waters. It would “secure our Blue Economy from internal and external threats,” he said, and be part of an “expansion of our maritime protected areas in our journey towards achieving 100% ocean sustainability — just to name a few”.

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

Australia’s Department of Defence was at pains to sound environmentally conscious and ecologically savvy. “The design [of the MESC] is environmentally sustainable and accommodates the climatic requirements of construction in Suva, Fiji.”

Apparently, it promises to be “almost self-sustaining from a water and electricity perspective with solar panels and water retention systems to be constructed”.

Local residents were asked their views on the facility by the ABC’s Pacific Beat. Donato, who lives and works in Lami, did not disagree in principle, but the location troubled him. “In terms of an emergency or war, the problem will be the citizens could be a casualty if the naval base is targeted.” His view was: relocate the base away from a residential zone “so it does not camouflage among the citizens of the country”.

An Australian Defence Department spokesperson dismissed these concerns. “The Fijian government is, and will remain, the lead agency for all engagement with the local Lami community,” they said. The Lami community had been consulted – since 2019 — although what exactly this involved the spokesperson did not say.

This would suggest little by way of engagement.

The Fiji Times noted there had been a number of consultations, but remained oblique about the involvement with local residents who stood to be directly affected by the site.

The first consultation was in July 2019, the next was in December 2021 and this was followed by a “local industry engagement forum in February 2022”.

There was also a sevusevu (a ceremonial gift as part of Fijian protocol) to the landowners in July and “further consultations in August”.

It would seem from this account that Lami residents were only briefed in greater detail at the fourth consultation session held at the Lami Parish Hall and conducted by the Ministry of Defence, National Security and Policing.

When Australian government representatives and the project contractor braved a local audience in early August, the reception proved frosty.

Questions were asked as to why the people of Lami were not consulted when plans for the proposed site were already being drafted two years ago.

Concerns were raised about congestion, the safety of children and grandchildren, given the proximity of the site to the local primary school, and the dangers posed by construction work. Questions were also posed about the risks of property devaluation.

The Australian representatives were hardly brimming with information. The Australian High Commission preferred to answer the indignant queries by email and, even then, ignored most of them. “The project is expected to generate $F55m in labour and construction revenue for the Fijian community,” a statement from the high commission said. And throw in 445 jobs.

Residents have also been told, condescendingly, that their site had to be chosen. The MESC could not, for instance, be built at Togalevu because of “ground integrity issues”. Nor would it be constructed on the Bilo Battery gun site, given its national heritage status.

Besides, the Australian PM has already claimed that $56.2 million would be directly injected into the economy along with the creation of 400 jobs, although both these figures remain unverifiable.

Those at Lami have also been promised that no arms or ammunition will be kept at the proposed MESC site, although this is by no means a certainty. The Fiji Defence Ministry officials said the project was not intended to “militarise the area in any way” — not exactly reassuring.

With Canberra’s ballyhoo about China’s increasingly large Pacific footprint and the Solomon Islands' move by to ask Beijing for assistance, those at Lami and across the whole of Fiji have every right to be concerned.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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