By Lucy Craymer
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand and Fiji are finalising a defence agreement that will increase engagement between the two countries militaries and help build capacity and skills in the Fiji Defence Force, the Fijian prime minister said on Wednesday.
Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka told media in Wellington, where he is meeting senior New Zealand government officials including the prime minister and opposition leader, that the agreement would be finalised next week.
“The agreement will allow defence officials to undertake engagement in different areas including capacity building and upskilling and exposure to new technologies interoperability and technical support among other,” he said.
The agreement comes as New Zealand, Australia and its partners seek to deter Pacific Islands nations from forming security ties with China, which last year struck a security pact with Solomon Islands.
In May, the U.S and Papua New Guinea signed a defence cooperation agreement and a maritime surveillance deal. Australia is negotiating a security treaty with PNG and signed another such deal with Vanuatu, although both deals have been delayed.
New Zealand last year signed a partnership statement with Fiji where they agreed to work more closely together in areas such as security, protecting shared interests and economic resilience.
Concern at becoming embroiled in strategic competition between the U.S. and China is emerging as a domestic political issue in PNG and Vanuatu. While regional leaders have raised concerns about the possible militarisation of the Pacific.
Rabuka said the region would only need to worry about militarisation of the region if diplomacy and common neighbourly discussions fail.
“I am sure we can continue our neighbourly cooperation and keep away discussions of other military interests in the region,” he said.
Rabuka and NZ Prime Minister Chris Hipkins met earlier Wednesday in private to discuss a number of matters which the two leaders said included economic ties, climate change and Fiji’s recovery from climate change.
Hipkins at the joint press conference reiterated the need for region to work together.
“We know we are stronger when we combine our collective efforts and focus on pacific regionalism and the priorities of the blue pacific continent,” Hipkins said.
(Reporting by Lucy Craymer; Editing by Michael Perry)
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