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Australian Defence Force International Engagement and Re-engagement with Fiji

Executive Summary

  • The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has a long history of defence international engagement in places as diverse as Fiji, Uganda and Vietnam. Most of this is routine, but some occurs on operations where it can be a critical factor in achieving strategic objectives.
  • Fiji is a useful case study to review international and operational engagement practices. Routine international engagement was a key component of the broader bilateral relationship with Fiji prior to the 2006 Coup. This was suspended when sanctions were imposed from 2006, lasting until the September 2014 national elections. In February 2016 Cyclone Winston occurred and Australia’s response, Operation Fiji Assist, involved a high tempo of operational international engagement.
  • The sanctions era coincided with a concerted effort by China to increase its influence in the region, and countering this became a core Australian strategic interest. Fiji’s strategic position and pivotal place as the ‘hub of the Pacific’ made it a priority to renew relations after elections occurred.
  • One legacy of the 2006 Coup was that significant numbers of political leaders, from presidents to prime ministers and ministers, were ex-military. Many in this group felt particularly aggrieved by sanctions and displayed a lack of trust and a deep suspicion of Australian attempts to re-engage.
  • Australia’s emergency humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR) to Cyclone Winston in 2016 provided an opportunity to accelerate the rapprochement. Behind the scenes of high-level Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade activities, several ADF personnel were integral to ensuring that Operation Fiji Assist was a tactical and strategic success.
  • Success was measured through the close collaboration between ADF and Fijian military personnel at the command level and on the ground/sea. The effective delivery of HADR resources and the rekindling of the esprit de corps between the militaries was pivotal in the rapprochement with Fiji that supported the achievement of Australia’s broader strategic objectives.
  • Success was dependent on the willing cooperation of senior Fijian officials. Their reengagement benefited from the alignment of interests and objectives achieved through careful international engagement.
  • The lessons to be drawn from this case study include:
    • Defence, and specifically Army, international engagement is a longstanding strength that has evolved through numerous operations and routine defence cooperation.
    • The evolution of international engagement mirrors the experience of allies and partners such as the UK and US, with whom Australia has often operated. International engagement is now identified as a force-multiplying, or more accurately an influence-enabling, approach to achieving strategic objectives.
    • International engagement has risen in prominence in Defence doctrine, with greater emphasis than ever being placed on it in the Defence Strategic Review.
    • International engagement works best when integrated with broader public diplomacy aimed at achieving Australia’s strategic objectives.
    • When collaborating with the Fijian military, Australian defence personnel have an advantage over other potential partners. There is an esprit de corps that was damaged by sanctions but has recovered through military diplomacy—through HADR (Cyclone Winston) and the provision of equipment (Bushmaster vehicles and patrol boats) and infrastructure (Blackrock Camp).
    • The quality of personnel in key roles is central to successful international engagement. Specialised defence international engagement practitioners should be treated as critical enablers and their selection and training should be institutionalised.