Last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made his second visit to Fiji this year. The trip came less than a month after Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama made an official visit to Australia. The frequency of personal contact between the two leaders (also including the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu in August) indicates that the relationship between the two countries has been thoroughly reinvigorated. While in Fiji Morrison made an announcement that an Australian peacekeeping force would be joining Fijian peacekeepers in a co-deployment in the Golan Heights, Syria, as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). The Diplomat spoke to Lisa Sharland — head of international program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and a non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC — on the implications of this development.
In recent decades Australia’s most significant involvement in peacekeeping operations has tended to be focused on its immediate region (Timor Leste, Solomon Islands). Could the decision to deploy troops to the Golan Heights be considered a significant policy shift?
Prime Minister Morrison recently revealed that Australia would be co-deploying to a peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights with Fiji. The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan has been in place since 1974 in order to monitor and supervise the ceasefire agreement between Israeli and Syrian forces. According to UN figures, Australia has had a staff officer deployed to UNDOF since May 2019, likely in preparation for this forthcoming deployment.
Australia currently has Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel deployed to three other UN peacekeeping missions – the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) and the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP, which also happens to be commanded by Australia’s Major General Cheryl Pearce). In the context of the Middle East, Australia has also had military observers deployed with UNTSO since 1956 and currently has 12 ADF personnel deployed to the mission. UNTSO regularly provides personnel to support the Observer Group Golan in UNDOF, so Australia has some familiarity with the operating environment. In addition to UN peacekeeping operations, Australia also continues to maintain a deployment to the Multinational Force & Observers in the Sinai (MFO).
Deploying more personnel to a UN peacekeeping mission in the Middle East doesn’t necessarily signify a significant policy shift. However, the announcement that Australia will be co-deploying with Fiji is a new development and marks a shift in the depth of defense cooperation with one of our Pacific neighbors.
Fiji has a large and active military force for both its size and geography — and has a substantial history of involvement in peacekeeping missions globally — could this co-deployment be seen as a way for Australia to enhance its broader interoperability between the defense forces of the two countries?
Fiji has contributed uniformed personnel to UN peacekeeping for over 40 years. It remains one of the largest contributors per capita, with close to 400 personnel currently deployed. According to UN figures, Fiji is ranked 41st in terms of the number of personnel it deploys compared to other UN troop and police contributors. It currently has military and police personnel deployed to UN peacekeeping operations in the Middle East (including Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and the Golan), as well as South Sudan and Darfur. Fiji has also demonstrated a willingness to remain deployed in UN missions that face significant security risks. For instance, in 2014 more than 40 Fijian peacekeepers were kidnapped in the Golan. Fiji remained committed to the mission, even though other countries decided to withdraw their personnel following similar events.
The co-deployment offers a potential “win-win” for Australia and Fiji. Partnerships are encouraged and viewed favorably by the UN when it comes to peacekeeping. Such partnerships can also offer benefits for bilateral relations. For instance, Australia previously deployed two ADF personnel with the Japanese engineering unit in South Sudan (before it withdrew from UNMISS in 2017), where they assisted the contingent with liaison services and mandate implementation. The deployment also offered an opportunity to strengthen bonds and offer insight into the operations of the ADF.
Although Fiji has a long history of deploying to UN peacekeeping missions, it has stated it is making efforts to improve its performance, suggesting this may be an issue. Fiji has noted that it is working with bilateral partners to strengthen “capabilities, preparedness, skills and overall performance.” It is probable that Australia will have some form of capacity building or mentoring role with Fiji, building on the work underway to support the development of the Blackrock training facility in Nadi as well. But we are still waiting for those details to be revealed by Canberra.
What is the significance of an Australian-Fiji peacekeeping co-deployment for the broader relationship between the two countries?
In September 2019, Australia and Fiji committed to enhance their bilateral relationship through the Fiji-Australia Vuvale Partnership. That agreement, among other things, committed Australia and Fiji to enter into a peacekeeping partnership and to support “joint Australian Defence Force – Republic of Fiji Military Forces deployments on peacekeeping missions, further training activities and intelligence cooperation during deployments.” This built on the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Fiji and Australia in April 2019 to develop the Blackrock Camp as a regional hub for police and peacekeeper training. However, these developments are in stark contrast to Australia’s relationship with Fiji on peacekeeping a decade ago.
Australia has had a challenging relationship with Fiji when it comes to their participation in UN peacekeeping. Following the coup in 2006, Australia and New Zealand called on the UN to limit Fiji’s engagement in UN peacekeeping, while also ceasing bilateral defense cooperation. This started to shift in 2014 in the lead up to elections, resulting in a rapprochement between the two countries, as well as efforts to slowly rebuild the bilateral defense relationship. Australia has slowly been stepping up its support to Fiji when it comes to peacekeeping. In addition to the support to develop the Blackrock Camp, Australia has provided Fiji with Bushmasters (Australian-built infantry vehicles) and provided strategic airlift to the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) to support their deployment to the MFO in the Sinai.
The co-deployment offers many potential benefits in terms of the broader relationship. It offers a valuable vehicle for defense cooperation through operational experience on the ground, which builds not only capability but important person-to-person links. But it also provides a means for Australia and Fiji to demonstrate their combined commitment to the multilateral system. Australia also has some interest in ensuring that Fiji is in a position to maintain its current commitment to UN peacekeeping. If there were to be a rapid return home of RFMF from peacekeeping operations, then it might risk some of the “unintended consequences” that have contributed to Fiji’s coup culture in the past.
How can this expanded defense engagement be understood in terms of the wider strategic landscape in the Pacific?
Australia’s expanded defense engagement with Fiji supports the Morrison Government’s “step-up” in the Pacific. Australia has become increasingly alarmed at the levels of engagement in the region, particularly from countries such as China and Russia.
Russia has previously engaged with Fiji in support of its peacekeeping deployments, including providing equipment in support of its deployment in the Golan Heights. China has also engaged with Fiji in support of its peacekeeping efforts, with the provision of funding and RFMF personnel receiving training in China. Notably, China can claim to have a greater breadth of experience in UN peacekeeping than Australia at present, with it often ranked among the top ten troop and police contributors, providing more than 2,000 personnel to a range of UN missions at present.
The decision by Australia to co-deploy with Fiji is likely driven by a range of factors, but these geopolitical dynamics in our immediate region will remain an ongoing consideration and potential driver. Nonetheless, the co-deployment should be viewed as a welcome move and one that Australia should seek to build on in its future engagement with other Pacific countries.