Australia has invested heavily in a Pacific peacekeeping hub. So, where are the recruits?

Nestled not far from Fiji’s Nadi airport is the Blackrock Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Camp. Before reopening in March 2022, this military complex was renovated and expanded in a A$100 million joint collaboration between Australia and Fiji.

The complex is envisioned as a future training and regional response hub for both natural and man-made disasters in the Pacific. It’s also emblematic of Australia and Fiji’s commitment to an international rules-based order. This is made more notable by the fact Australia narrowly outbid China as the funder for the camp’s renovation.

The need for a regional humanitarian logistics hub is clear. Oceania and South-East Asia experience roughly 40% of the world’s natural disasters – often in the form of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and increasingly destructive cyclones.

The new complex is based on a Pacific-centric and co-operative approach to addressing disasters, guaranteeing a speedy deployment of humanitarian relief workers and supplies when emergencies occur. As such, other Pacific Island countries have endorsed it.

Nearly two years after opening, however, Blackrock’s value as a Pacific peacekeeping hub is not as clear.

A history of Pacific peacekeeping

Fiji has long been a consistent contributor to UN peacekeeping operations. The country sends more than 300 peacekeepers to global hot spots every year. Per capita, Fiji provides more peacekeepers than any other country.

Other countries in the Pacific have been far less engaged. Besides Fiji, only Papua New Guinea and Tonga have traditional militaries from which they can draw soldiers to become peacekeepers.

PNG first fielded personnel on peace operations as part of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands in 2000. While national pride and a belief in the importance of “nation building” have motivated PNG deployments, the country only has the capacity to contribute a few peacekeepers at a time.

Tonga has participated in US-led coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past, as well as Australia and New Zealand-led operations in Bougainville and Solomon Islands. However, it has never contributed to a UN peace operation.

The remaining Pacific Islands have contributed to peacekeeping in other ways. Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste and Vanuatu have all provided police, military advisers or other personnel in small numbers.

Despite historically limited engagement, many Pacific countries want to increase their participation in peacekeeping operations. They are motivated by:

  • a desire to support countries wracked by conflict
  • political and cultural links in the region
  • national pride
  • the opportunity to gain operational experience
  • financial incentives.

So far, Blackrock has been able to train roughly 400 Fijian peacekeepers every year. It has also begun to host training and joint exercises with troops and military experts from key partner nations, such as the US, Australia, Britain, New Zealand and France. Most recently, Blackrock hosted 14 Fijian and 10 Australian defence personnel for their first joint peacekeeping pre-deployment training.

Despite these notable achievements, the camp has not attracted peacekeeping candidates from elsewhere in the Pacific.

What Australia can do to help

Pacific countries already have a high level of co-ordination on peace and security initiatives through the Pacific Islands Forum and other regional programs. Therefore, a co-operative approach to peacekeeping seems reasonable.

As Inia Seruiratu, Fiji’s minister for defence, national security and foreign affairs, put it:

For small developing countries like Fiji, partnerships are the way forward. It is the new model of peacekeeping for us.

However, there are formidable challenges to making Blackrock a truly successful training base for a future Pacific peacekeeping force.

First, many Pacific countries cannot afford to lose high-performing police and military personnel to peace operations.

Then there is the cost of operating a peacekeeping training centre year in, year out. This includes the massive cost of moving potential recruits around the region, as well as trainers and other personnel.

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This is where the support of partner countries like Australia is vital.

Australia will likely continue to support the day-to-day operating costs of Blackrock as part of its enhanced engagement in the Pacific.

Beyond that, Australia can help meet the challenge of finding recruits by leveraging its old and new defence initiatives in the region.

For example, in recent days, Australia and PNG signed a A$200 million deal to help boost PNG’s security capacities, in part by establishing a new police recruit and investigations training centre. Earlier this year, Australia also signed a memorandum of understanding with Kiribati to help expand its police training, including training for UN peacekeeping operations.

These agreements should include Australian financial and transportation support for police and military personnel who are being upskilled to travel to Blackrock.

Why a regional peacekeeping force matters

Supporting Pacific peacekeeping partnerships is a complex challenge that will require sustained support from Australia, but the benefits are substantial.

For one, Pacific countries’ security forces will continue to develop and professionalise by training in a multinational environment. These links will also improve the interoperability between the Australian Defence Force and its counterparts in the Pacific.

From a geo-strategic standpoint, cultivating regional security networks helps position Australia as the “security provider of choice” for Pacific Island states.

Lastly, the entire region will benefit from the creation of a well-trained force capable of deploying in support of conflicts and disasters. It will take the pressure off outside powers (including Australia, the US and even China) to do so.

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