• Honorable Pat Conroy, Minister for International Development and the Pacific and Minister for Defence Industry;
• Australian Chief of Navy;
• Distinguished Guests;
• Ladies and Gentlemen.

Bula Vinaka and good morning,

 I begin by acknowledging with deep gratitude the welcome to the “country ceremony” accorded to me this morning by the traditional owners of this land upon which we gathered here today.

 Today marks an important milestone in the Defence Cooperation for Fiji and Australia, based on the renewed Vuvale Partnership signed just five months ago between Prime Minister Albanese and I. As Vuvale, we stand shoulder to shoulder to foster our common interest at all times.

 I am delighted to be here to bear witness another milestone to deepening of relations between our two countries, at this time on the defence front with the handing over of the RFNS PUAMAU. This being the second guardian class patrol boat that Fiji is receiving from the generous offer from Australia.

 RFNS PUAMAU has come at a critical time and is a most welcomed addition to our effort at improving Fiji’s ability to protect its waters against the increasing threats in our region particularly from illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing and transnational organised crime.

 As you would be aware, earlier this year, Fiji, through the combined efforts of our border agencies, with support of our partners, carried out a number of drug raids. The value of the drugs seized is estimated to be in the billions, which is considerable in view of the size of Fiji’s economy.

 This is the reality that Fiji faces as a transit point in the Pacific. We know that crime and criminal groups do not respect borders. In effect, they manipulate borders in their business model. Yet they can only be disrupted, neutralised and dismantled through joint efforts and combined initiatives, the Pacific Maritime Security Program being a great example. It calls for interoperability to combat these crimes with a degree of hope for success.

 We are profoundly grateful to Australia for the Pacific Maritime Security Program. It is testament to Australia’s commitment to Fiji, the region and to our shared security challenges and aspirations.

 It also illustrates Australia’s continued support and contribution to our efforts to secure and maintain our Pacific region as a “Zone of Peace”.

 With the weight of security challenges at multiple fronts around the world, heightened geopolitical competition and a worsening climate crisis, the consequences that our Blue Pacific region faces could be potentially devastating.

 In an increasingly multi-polar environment, it is the smaller, developing countries who are often courted, or rejected in order to gain an edge. Worse, we’re compelled to make a choice, to take sides. We have seen in the last decade or so, how the Pacific has become a geostrategic arena, where multitude of interests, many not in congruence with each other, collide, with no end in sight. The chances of miscalculation is high and a worsening of the situation heightened.

 We see the rules-based order that had provided stability for so long under threat. We see a world in turmoil. It needs a deluge of peace, a torrent. This would be the antidote to war. We need our collective effort to make this happen, together we can make it happen and the handover ceremony today is a contribution to that.

 At the other end, the concept of the “Zone of Peace” can be seen from the lens of strategic equilibrium; that it provides the status of balance that receives and embrace one other; that whoever enters the Pacific region, will be compelled to tone down and tune in to the ways of the Pacific.

 Yet we recognise that the “Zone of Peace” concept is much larger than ourselves. We cannot achieve the Zone of Peace on our own, Fiji and Australia together with the Forum family would be called upon to live by the values reflecting peace as one of the highest virtues.

 The Zone of Peace is also an end state, it will demonstrate that our region is free of militarization, consistent with the UN Charter, while embracing multilateralism and the principles of collective action.

 We need to advance peace rather than conflict. Beyond our region, we will advance tolerance and respect for each other, for there cannot be trust before respect. These remain the bases of our relations. We need to keep the door open to allow the political processes to work. At that level, this must be kept broad yet focused, visionary yet actionable, comprehensive yet specific, direct yet nuanced. We must be prepared to say and do what is right, not necessarily what is popular.

 At the WTO conference in Abu Dhabi last week, we couldn’t get the breakthrough we were seeking as a region to reduce fisheries subsidies. This could mean the continuing increase of uncontrolled and even overfishing of tuna stocks from our Pacific region. Our hope therefore lies in regionalism, in surveillance and enforcement. It is the path to safeguarding our commonwealth for this generation and those to come.

 This Patrol Boat Program and all the combined operations and training we engage ourselves in are aimed at upholding the integrity of our region, underscored by its values, as a Zone of Peace. It is for that ‘peace’ that we train together, make every effort to uphold and then share beyond our region.

 In saying this, we must not tarry at this mountain of achievement but we will continue to work together and build on this bond in our defence partnerships within the Vuvale to make the Pacific truly ‘pacific’.

It therefore gives me great honour to accept the RFNS PUAMAU. From a grateful nation, I say to Australia, Vinaka Vakalevu!

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