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United Pacific force floated to respond to disasters

Dominic Giannini -

Standing up a Pacific response group to help during natural disasters and emergencies has been described as the most significant step in military-to-military co-operation in the region.

Defence Minister Richard Marles is in New Caledonia to meet with his South Pacific counterparts.

The region was made up of "a family of countries" who had an instinct to assist, Mr Marles told reporters in Noumea.

"The Pacific response group is really the next step in relation to that, which is to explore the idea of having a standing formed unit which would be there to provide assistance when invited to do so by a country," he said.

"There's a lot of work which needs to be done to put the flesh on the bones.

A response unit would be a step up in military co-operation in the Pacific, Richard Marles says. (Image: Con Chronis/AAP PHOTOS)

"But it would be the most significant step forward in terms of co-ordination between our militaries in relation to responding to natural disasters or other emergencies."

Ministers from Australia, Fiji, France, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Chile agreed to support such a group when they met in Noumea.

The chiefs and heads of the defence forces have been asked to develop the initiative so it can be considered in more detail next year.

The idea of the regional unit is to deliver rapid humanitarian response and security assistance during times of need.

The South Pacific Defence Ministers' Meeting is the region's premier ministerial defence forum.

The US, UK and Japan are observers.

Australia has been looking to bolster its security arrangements in the Pacific after China signed a policing pact with the Solomon Islands and has been expanding its influence in the region.

There are concerns in Canberra about China securing a foothold in the region.

Australia has "technical advisors" in several Pacific island countries as "many of those leaders want their own objective sources of advice and assessment", the head of the Office of National Intelligence Andrew Shearer said.

He is also spending more time in the region meeting leaders and senior officials.

Dominic Giannini - AAP

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