Interview with Jim Wilson, 2GB
JIM WILSON: I want to get to the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, because right now there’s major concerns about the security deal that’s been signed between the Solomon Islands and China; and Australia’s Foreign Minister and Minister for Women, Marise Payne, joins me live on the line.
Minister, welcome back to the program.
MARISE PAYNE: Hi Jim.
WILSON: Now, your government released a statement last week saying, quote, “We’ve asked the Solomon Islands respectfully to consider not signing the agreement.” Now they have. Why are they ignoring us?
PAYNE: Well, Jim, I think the extent of our discussions with the Solomon Islands has been extensive and I don’t regard it as a matter of ignoring us, because certainly the concerns that we have raised, particularly in relation to a potential under such an agreement, for example, for a military base from China in the Pacific, are matters that Solomon Islands Prime Minister - Prime Minister Sogavare, has explicitly said will not be the case. But that does not detract from our very deep disappointment that this matter has progressed.
We certainly feel and have genuinely shown, in fact at every opportunity, that the Pacific family, of which Australia is a key member, is best placed to respond to security challenges in our region. We’ve shown it over the years of the RAMSI mission, which many Australian women and men from the Australian Federal Police and ADF have served as part of. We showed it at the end of last year when we went immediately to Solomon Islands with partners from Fiji and Papua New Guinea and New Zealand to address the unrest then.
So, for us, this is a clear role for members of the Pacific family and, in fact, it’s part of the key security declarations in the Pacific – Biketawa Declaration, the Boe Declaration from the Pacific Islands Forum meetings of recent times.
WILSON: Are you still taking the Solomon Islands PM at his word that the assurances that they won’t build a Chinese military base on the Solomon Islands? I mean, surely – I mean, come on, it’s going to be a major strategic military base for the Chinese. They will proceed with it.
PAYNE: So, Jim, I think that, ultimately, these are – the decision to sign the agreement itself is a sovereign decision for the Government of the Solomon Islands, and it is necessary for Australia to be respectful of that.
WILSON: Do you believe him though? Do you believe him though that the Chinese won’t build a military base in the Pacific? It would be – to me and I think a lot of people listening to the program, we know how the Chinese Government operates. It’s a key strategic military base in the Pacific; surely, it’s going to happen.
PAYNE: I don’t necessarily think that is the case, and I think the Prime Minister’s assurance is important. It’s an assurance that he’s delivered on behalf of the Solomon Islands as a key member itself of the Pacific Island Forum. It is important to other members of the Pacific Island Forum, not just to Australia; other members of the grouping have also raised their concerns, as have New Zealand; discussions have been had between the Prime Minister of Fiji and the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands; the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea and the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands. They are very important partners, all of them together and separately, for both the forum itself and the Solomon Islands. And I think that those undertakings are not just made to Australia, Jim. They’re made to the Pacific, and it is very important that we see them in that lens as well.
WILSON: So, how long have you known this military pact or this agreement was in the pipeline, because the Solomon Islands Opposition Leader claims he warned our officials about this deal as early as last August. Is that true?
PAYNE: That’s not my understanding and I’ve seen the comments reported in relation to that statement. My understanding is there was a claim of a meeting held in August of last year. I understand that meeting was actually held in May, and I am advised that that was not a matter which was raised at that meeting.
WILSON: When did you first find out about this potential security agreement being signed?
PAYNE: As we’ve spoken about in the Parliament and in estimates, only in recent weeks when it was leaked through the Solomon Islands media.
WILSON: Okay. What’s your reaction to the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who said this is a major foreign policy fail?
PAYNE: I think it’s important to be appropriately respectful of the sovereign decisions by other nations in the region, and certainly, there’s never been more comprehensive and expanded partnerships and relationships in the region than we have demonstrated in the last few years with the Pacific Step‑up. As of this current budget, we will be delivering a record $1.85 billion or thereabouts in official development assistance. As a country, we are the only country in the Pacific, in the world, in fact, which has diplomatic missions in every Pacific Island Forum country. We have been the key partner for the Pacific including the Solomon Islands in responding to COVID‑19, both in terms of health security and, importantly, economic security, because we know the impact of COVID‑19 on the economy of the Pacific has been absolutely crushing. We have increased our Pacific climate finance commitment. We have doubled the lending capacity of the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility to the Pacific, including for a very important climate-resilient, climate-adaptive project for the Solomon Islands, the Tina River hydropower project, and all of these actions are the actions of the strongest possible partner in the Pacific that Australia can be.
WILSON: This is – but it’s deeply concerning. I mean, the former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has come out and said you should visit the Solomon Islands as soon as possible. Will you be intending to do that?
PAYNE: Of course, we have – as the Prime Minister said earlier today, we have calibrated our engagement with the Solomon Islands on these issues. I’ve spoken at length with Foreign Minister Manele. Minister Seselja, who is Australia’s Minister for the Pacific, was in the Solomon Islands last week, the Head of the Office of the Pacific has visited both in January, in February, and again in the last month. These are important engagements. We’ve been very clear about Australia’s views on this matter and our engagement has been extensive.
WILSON: But with respect to the Minister for Pacific, Zed Seselja, he’s a junior Minister. You’re the Foreign Minister. You’re a senior member of Cabinet. This is a very serious situation that warrants the Foreign Minister actually being there, especially with the number of senior US officials being there later in the week in Honiara. Wouldn’t it be a united front for you to be there with your US counterparts?
PAYNE: I wouldn’t necessarily say it was appropriate for Australia to be there with, at the same time, if that’s what you’re suggesting, our US counterparts. I’m very pleased that the United States has indicated that they’ll reopen an embassy in Honiara. The Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, made that commitment after he left Australia from the Quad Foreign Ministers meeting in February. It is important, but we have ensured that we have engaged extensively across Government with counterparts in the Solomon Islands; that includes the engagement that we regularly do under the bilateral security treaty that exists between Australia and the Solomon Islands, and I would note for your listeners that that is a treaty that is public and open. It is on Australia’s treaty register, unlike this agreement, which is not transparent to – which is not clear to the rest of the Pacific family and certainly that is a matter of concern to us as well.
WILSON: By the sounds of it, it sounds like you won’t be planning a visit to the Solomon Islands any time soon – you personally?
PAYNE: We’ll deal with these matters appropriately, Jim, and we are, of course, in a caretaker environment at the moment in the middle of an election campaign, and I understand that travel can be undertaken in these periods – has been in the past. And we have calibrated this in a way that’s enabled us to deal right across the Solomon Islands Government and certainly with our counterparts the Minister for Home Affairs, with Police Minister Veke, whether it is in my discussions with Foreign Minister Manele, in the Prime Minister’s contact with Prime Minister Sogavare and many other Pacific leaders across our entire Government, they are discussions and extensive engagement that we have all the time.
WILSON: Do you think there’s any chance of this deal being struck at the eleventh hour?
PAYNE: As I understand it, they have indicated that the matter has been signed between the two Foreign Ministers. I’m not sure of the nature of that signing. We have seen reporting from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We have seen a statement from the Minister in Solomon Islands in their system today. I’m not sure of the nature of the signing. My counterpart currently has COVID, for example, and is indisposed, so it remains to be seen how that was done, but we will continue to pursue that extensive engagement that I have spoken about in our conversation today.
WILSON: Is this a case of China paying off a Prime Minister in the Pacific to control a regime in that region?
PAYNE: Jim, that is an entirely speculative observation. I do not make any comment or observation on that at all. The Solomon Islands made a decision, a genuine decision, a sovereign decision of their own, in terms of changing recognitions in their diplomatic system from Taiwan to China some time ago. We work and deal in a very challenging strategic environment. In the Pacific, the geostrategic realities are stark. And that is why Australia has done all the work that we have in our Pacific Step‑up. Some of the issues I spoke to you about when you were asking questions earlier, but that includes Pacific Labour Mobility program; almost 17,000 Pacific workers coming to Australia since we were able to restart recruitment post‑COVID last year –
WILSON: Yeah, sure.
PAYNE: – our Pacific Maritime Security Program.
WILSON: Just on that, you’ve put national security and you’ve done a very good job as far as standing up to the bullying from Beijing, okay, but this is a national security issue, and I would have thought you say you’re a caretaker Government. I would have thought the seriousness of this situation would warrant the Foreign Minister to be personally in the Solomon Islands and I think a lot of our listeners would agree.
PAYNE: Unfortunately, I would not be able to meet with the Foreign Minister of the Solomon Islands even if I was there now because as I said he’s unavailable –
WILSON: You could meet with the Prime Minister, possibly?
PAYNE: – diagnosed with COVID and as the Head of the Office of the Pacific, as Minister Seselja has done, these are matters which we have extensively and closely engaged with the Solomon Islands on, Jim, but I think it is important for everyone to remember that ultimately the countries of our region and, of course, more broadly, make their own sovereign decisions about the arrangements which they pursue. We have an existing bilateral treaty between Australia and the Solomon Islands. We have been clearly told by the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands that Australia is the first security partner of choice to their country. That is important. That is reinforced by his undertaking that there will not be a Chinese military base developed out of this agreement, and we will continue to work closely not just with the Solomon Islands but with all of our Pacific partners on that.
WILSON: Minister, thank you for your time as always.
PAYNE: Thanks, Jim.
WILSON: That’s Foreign Minister and Minister for Women, Senator Marise Payne.