CANBERRA,AUSTRALIA- APRIL 20,2021 (AFR)—A parliamentary inquiry has floated the proposal of establishing a “Pacific Islands Regiment” to help forge closer military ties between the Australian Defence Force(ADF) and neighbouring island nations, amid growing tensions over China’s efforts to build regional influence.
The regiment would conduct humanitarian and disaster relief missions, as well as be available for peacekeeping operations, building on the Morrison government’s Pacific Step-Up.
The House of Representatives defence sub-committee spent 16 months looking at how to strengthen defence relationships with Pacific nations, with fisheries management, surveillance and intelligence collection, disaster relief, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic identified as key areas of co-operation.
“Defence and security challenges faced in the Pacific are now more prevalent and complex than ever before. It behoves all members of the Pacific family to be aware of emerging issues, and to face them together in an organised, collaborative, and co-ordinated manner,” the report said.
“As a regional medium-power, Australia bears significant responsibility for creating the environment and providing the means to achieve this.”
The report said the regional security architecture could be boosted by additional focus on existing arrangements “but also by the establishment of new initiatives which may be leveraged so as to benefit Pacific Island nations and support their self-governance and sovereignty while continuing to deepen defence ties with Australia”.
MPs called for increased integration of Australian, Pacific Island and other military forces on combined training and operations, suggesting one such way could be establishing a Pacific Islands regiment within the Australian Defence Force.
Witnesses told the committee that Australia and New Zealand could provide training, equipment and facilities for the regiment. As an incentive to enlist, Australian residency and citizenship could be offered to serving personnel and their families.
“The committee understands that establishing any military body would have associated complexities including (but not limited) to consideration of status of forces agreements, pay and conditions, and veterans affairs,” the report said.
The director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s defence program, Michael Shoebridge, said establishing the regiment was the type of initiative that should be performed in the next wave of the Pacific Step-Up.
Shoebridge said the regiment would build regional cohesion among Pacific nations and keep China’s ambitions at bay.
“The attractive thing about it to Pacific Island states is it would be a functional and better way of training and equipping them so they can do disaster relief and peacekeeping,” he said.
“[Also] it would get in the way of increased Chinese presence and activity so I think that would be a net benefit for Australia and the region’s interest.”
The Defence Department would not be drawn specifically on establishing a Pacific Islands Regiment but said its engagement in the region was driven by the priorities of Pacific nations.
“Working with our partners, we are increasing Defence’s presence, conducting training and activities with Pacific militaries and security agencies, building stronger people-to-people links, and delivering infrastructure to enhance the security capability of the Pacific,” a statement said…..