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An Australian-backed intelligence hub that will begin operating out of Vanuatu next year is being touted as the key to strengthening Pacific security but there is some concern over the extent of influence the Australian government could gain from a centre that will gather sensitive intelligence on some of the region's biggest security problems.
Drug smuggling, illegal fishing, human trafficking, climate change and disinformation are expected to be the focus of the Pacific Fusion Centre, a new regional collaboration to be set up soon in Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila.
It has been operating from Canberra on an interim basis since September last year, bringing together 21 analysts from 14 Pacific countries.
Security analyst Dr Antony Bergin, who is a senior fellow with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said that the Pacific has become a "drug highway" in recent years, with a "dramatic expansion" in the number of boats smuggling cocaine and methamphetamine from Latin America, destined for Australia.
“In the last few years, we've seen some major seizures of drugs particularly in French Polynesia so you know the islands have certainly been subjected to pressure from drug trafficking...they've caused significant number of problems for the islands...in some cases drugs have turned up in lagoon areas for pick up, so it is an issue,” he said.
Dr Tess Newton Cain from the Griffith Asia Institute said the fusion centre is intended to serve as an intelligence hub.
“Essentially it's a clearing house that's sourced from a range of different places, all centralised in one place and then collated and analysed and shared back to the participating countries,” Dr Newton Cain said.
It was always intended to have a home in the region, the fact that's it's been announced for Vanuatu is an important one,” she said.
News that Vanuatu will host the centre was announced this month in a joint statement by the county's foreign minister and his Australian counterpart, as Canberra pushes forward with its Pacific 'Step-Up' policy, that many regional analysts say is trying to counter China's influence in the region.
“It's not surprising to see that this is another aspect of engagement in which Australia wants to have a much stronger and more visible presence in the region and certainly they're now going to have...a series of analysts located in Vanuatu, who will be eyes and ears on the ground for the entire region,” Dr Newton Cain said.
“Now the question is how much control or direction Australia expects to have in that by virtue of being the funder.”
The Australian government says the centre will provide accurate information and practical support to Pacific decision-makers but Anthony Bergin and Tess Newton Cain agree that building trust must be a priority.
“The biggest issue for a centre of this kind is around the quality of relationships and I think there has been and there will continue to be, a level of wariness on the part of of Pacific island states about who is controlling the narrative that arises from this intelligence gathering and analysing exercise,” she said.
“There've been instances in the past of Pacific island leaders feeling that Australia seems to do a lot of taking and hoovering of intelligence and it's not necessarily in their best interests, so I think that is something which will need to be worked on very carefully”.
“Let's be honest, many of the island countries themselves haven't got a great track record of information sharing on national security within their own jurisdictions. This centre will be requiring them to share information from their national bodies with other countries, other regional bodies and so on,” Dr Bergin said.
Tevita Motulalo, a Strategic Analyst and Senior Researcher with the Royal Oceania Institute, an independent think tank in Tonga, said questions remain about just how effective the Fusion Centre will be at tackling some of the region's most persistent security concerns.
“Human trafficking and drug trafficking organisations are very rich and very capable, and adapt really well,” he said.
“Even if the message is sent, we'll still have to see if it has any effect. It's a commercial enterprise anyway, so unless the risk overshadow the rewards for them, they might not budge, or might even adapt,” he said.
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