By foreign affairs reporter Stephen Dziedzic
Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka has backed Australia’s nuclear submarine plan as Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese conducts a major diplomatic blitz to reassure the region about the landmark AUKUS announcement.
Mr Rabuka met Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during his brief stop in Fiji on his way back from San Diego, where he unveiled the long-awaited details of Australia’s pathway to nuclear powered submarines with US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
China has continued to fiercely criticise the plan, while some South-East Asian and the Pacific countries have expressed concerns it might fuel a regional arms race.
But Mr Rabuka told reporters travelling with Mr Albanese in Fiji that he backed AUKUS, and that Mr Albanese had assured him Australia’s submarine push would not undermine the Treaty of Rarotonga, which declares that the South Pacific is a nuclear weapons-free zone.
The response from Indonesia – which expressed sharp concerns about Australia’s nuclear submarine plan when Scott Morrison made the shock announcement in 2021 – has been relatively cautious and measured this time around.
In a statement, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry said Australia would have to develop a “verification mechanism that is effective, transparent and non-discriminatory” to ensure the nuclear submarine proposal didn’t undermine the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
But the statement didn’t directly criticise the announcement or the government, simply saying that all countries in the region had a responsibility to maintain “stability” in South-East Asia.
Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry issued a more pointed statement, which included a thinly veiled criticism of AUKUS, warning against “provocations” which “could potentially trigger an arms race in the region”.
Malaysia’s suspicion towards AUKUS has in the past frustrated Australian officials, who have privately pointed out that the South-East Asian nation has not complained about the way China has built up a massive military force in recent decades – including 12 nuclear powered submarines.
The government has been on a widescale diplomatic push since the AUKUS announcement.(Supplied: Prime Minister’s Office)
Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the government had poured significant time and effort into explaining the government’s rationale for obtaining nuclear powered submarines, and stressed that the boats would not be armed with nuclear weapons.
“Obviously we’ve engaged very closely with our region in the lead up to this and made sure they weren’t blindsided in the way they were under the Morrison government,” Senator Wong said.
Senator Wong also said Australia and Indonesia shared the same vision for the region.
“I would just make this point that the Indonesian Foreign Ministry official statement made the same statement I made to you this morning — that maintaining peace and stability in the region is the responsibility of all countries” she said.
“It’s critical for all countries to be part of this effort. That is what we’re part of.”
The government has waged a widescale diplomatic push both before and since the AUKUS announcement, with senior ministers and officials from the prime minister down briefing their counterparts across Asia, the Pacific and Europe.
Beijing has warned that AUKUS would undermine the “international non-proliferation system, fuel arms races, and hurt peace and stability in the region”.
It has been waging an aggressive campaign against the plan in the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The ABC has been told two Chinese diplomats attended an Australian government briefing held on Wednesday in Canberra for diplomatic missions.
Briefings were also offered on Tuesday to missions representing both South-East Asian and Pacific nations, as well as partners from other parts of the world.
Mr Albanese, Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Defence Minister Richard Marles and Pacific Minister Pat Conroy made about 60 phone calls to their counterparts in the lead-up to the announcement as part of the diplomatic push.
Senator Wong has also indicated that she will travel to several countries in the region to further explain Australia’s rationale for AUKUS, and to reassure them that the plan won’t create any nuclear proliferation risks.