ABC RN Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas

  • Transcript E&OE
Subjects: Visit to Samoa; Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit to Pacific; relationship with China; detention of Australian citizens in China; Julian Assange.

Patricia Karvelas, Host: Foreign Minister Penny Wong arrives in Tonga this morning as she pushes to reset Australia’s relationships in the Pacific and counter China’s growing influence. The regional blitz continues over the weekend with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese travelling to Indonesia where trade is expected to be high on the agenda.

Labor is hoping its stronger climate targets will boost Australia’s credibility with its neighbours. I spoke to the Foreign Minister Penny Wong a short time ago.

Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs: Good to be with you, Patricia.

Karvelas: China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is coming to the end of his Pacific tour as you visit the region for the second time in a week. Who’s going to come away happier? Has your intervention been a success?

Foreign Minister: Look, this is about the Australian Government on behalf of Australia reaching out to the Pacific. We said in the election we would bring new energy and more resources to the Pacific. We said that we would have a much more ambitious position on climate, which of course is such a central issue to the Pacific Island nations. So, I’m very grateful to the nations who have received us. We’ve had a warm welcome. We’ll continue to work in the Pacific family.

On the broader issue you raise and the position we take, which we reiterated to leaders, is, you know, regional security, Pacific security, should be dealt with by the Pacific family, of which Australia is a part.

Karvelas: Samoa’s Prime Minister seemed to suggest China has overreached by trying to get Pacific nations to separately sign on to its security and trade deal. Do you think China has overplayed its hand?

Foreign Minister: Look, I spent quite a bit of time yesterday with Prime Minister Fiamē, who is a very impressive leader not only in her nation but within the region. And she is deeply committed to the region. She’s deeply committed to the regional architecture – that is Pacific Islands Forum. She continues to advocate for that forum and the region to deal with the issues that the region’s facing. And I think that is a very sensible position for her to take and one that Australia supports.

Karvelas: Minister Wang is visiting PNG today as the country is in the middle of an election campaign. Some have raised concerns about political interference. Do you see it that way? Do you share those concerns?

Foreign Minister: Well, I simply point to the decision by the Australian Government to respect the indication from Papua New Guinea and the advice we’ve been given that this is not an appropriate time for us to visit during an election campaign. As soon as the election is resolved obviously the Prime Minister and myself and other senior ministers will be very keen to engage with Papua New Guinea. It’s a very important neighbour.

Karvelas: After your trip – although I know there’ll be many more, but this one – and the conversations you’ve had on the ground in these Pacific countries, how likely is it that China will increase its military presence in Pacific Island countries? Is there any evidence that that’s afoot?

Foreign Minister: I think what we’re seeing is China being much more active in the region. That’s been well documented, well reported and confirmed by what the Chinese Government has said. What we have to do is to lift our engagement in the region. We have to talk to them, with them, about our climate policy, which, as I’ve said previously, it’s a central issue. It’s an existential issue for many Pacific Island nations.

So, we have to do more work than has been previously been done in the region. That’s certainly what the next few years looks like. I think a lot more engagement will be necessary. I think leaders here understand that the circumstances in which we live we need to focus on how we work with regional partners for their development, for climate and for the broader security issues.

Karvelas: Samoa’s Prime Minister suggested this week that she did not have enough time to look at China’s pact proposal. But earlier she said that the Pacific Islands Forum may be the best body to discuss China’s proposal in the spirit of Pacific unity. Is China just going to revive this deal?

Foreign Minister: I think the Chinese spokespeople have made clear, you know, this will be a continued aspect of China’s policy towards the region. But in relation to the Pacific Islands Forum, that is the architecture that is – by which the region has dealt with its issues. It’s the architecture that, the forum by which the Pacific has dealt with both internal and external issues that needed to be managed.

That is the reason why the first visit I made was to Fiji and the first speech I gave in the Pacific was at the Pacific Islands Forum, which is a signal about the importance Australia places on that regional architecture.

Karvelas: China now appears to be threatening New Zealand with trade tariffs. Beijing has said it wants to improve its relationship with Australia after last week. Is that still possible?

Foreign Minister: I have seen the reports of the response to Prime Minister Ardern’s meeting with President Biden and the public statements that were made afterwards. And I’d simply say this; we have an interest in a world where trade and economic engagement is open, is free and is predicated on rules, predictable rules, and norms. The concern that Australia has raised about the Chinese economic measures against Australia is that they undermine that principle.

You know, we have a longstanding position – to be fair, both parties of government – for decades that we see trade arrangements internationally as being a very important part of, you know, what you might call the rules-based order, but basically making sure that nations can deal with each other in ways that are respectful and predictable.

Karvelas: Are you expecting or preparing for potentially more trade sanctions for Australia given your intervention in the Pacific?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think we will do what we think is right. We will engage with the Pacific, bearing in mind we are part of the Pacific family. We are not an external partner; we are part of that family.

Karvelas: Have you tried to speak to your counterpart Wang Yi or any of your Chinese counterparts yet?

Foreign Minister: Look, we’ve received – and I think this has been in the media – the Prime Minister has received correspondence from Premier Li and I’ve received correspondence from my counterpart and will respond in due course, as is appropriate.

Karvelas: Beijing also says its detention of two Australian citizens, Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun, shouldn’t be a problem for the relationship. Now, Cheng Lei’s partner told Sky News yesterday her health has deteriorated and she’s only being given raw white rice to eat. How concerned are you by those cases?

Foreign Minister: Look, I am concerned by any Australian citizen who is incarcerated. I’ve released a statement recently about Dr Yang. We’re very deeply concerned about him. I am concerned about Ms Cheng’s wellbeing and I understand from the Department that we’ve continued to seek consular access in accordance with the agreement with China.

Obviously, you know, there are – have been some health issues raised which are also on the public record. I’m not going to go into some of those for privacy reasons, but we continue to advocate publicly for Ms Cheng to be treated appropriately.

Karvelas: Yesterday you announced this eight-year partnership with Samoa focused on addressing human development and social inclusion challenges. What does that actually involve?

Foreign Minister: Look, I spoke actually at length with some of the officers involved both on the Fijian [Samoan] side and the Australian side about the partnership. We had an event where a whole range of medical equipment and medical supplies was transferred from Australia to Samoa. So, it’s a partnership which has been worked up with the Fijian [Samoan] Government responding to their needs. And it covers a whole range of issues in health and human development more broadly. For example, vaccination programs for non-Covid conditions, how we deal with non-communicable diseases, so more primary care support for things such as diabetes. There are programs relating to family violence and how that is to be dealt with.

I have to say, Samoa does demonstrate, you know, a good capacity. Has picked up a lot of the systems, the primary care systems, that Australia has worked with them on and, you know, I hope that this will really – this will really have benefits in terms of development and health outcomes over the next eight years.

Karvelas: You’re heading to Tonga today. Are you hoping to do something similar in that visit? Will there be a similar partnership announcement?

Foreign Minister: Well, that would be me announcing things ahead of time. But look, you know, this has been some years in the making, the Samoan partnership. But I do look forward to my visit to Tonga. It’s been a very positive and rewarding experience certainly from the Australian side – I hope from the Samoan and the Tongan side to engage with the region in this way.

Karvelas: You’re heading to Indonesia with the Prime Minister this weekend. Economic issues and trade will be front and centre. Will you be raising China with your Indonesian counterpart, and is China looking like it wants Indonesia to be a greater partner in this expansion it’s taking?

Foreign Minister: Well, I don’t know that I’ll be sort of telegraphing, if you don’t mind, precisely what we’ll be talking about.

Karvelas: Probably not, but I try.

Foreign Minister: That’s a reasonable try. But I think all the nations in the region understand that we are in a time of great change and that our region is being reshaped, and all nations are seeking to find their way through that in a way that accords with their interests. And, of course, the Australian Prime Minister, the Australian Foreign Minister, is going to put to the countries of the region, our perspective on where those interests are shared and what we can do to ensure they are preserved.

Karvelas: Okay, just finally on Julian Assange, as Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese declared Assange’s incarceration in the United Kingdom pending his extradition to the United States where he faces spying charges had gone on long enough and he wanted him freed. Is this now the Government’s position?

Foreign Minister: The Prime Minister has expressed that it’s hard to see what is served by keeping Mr Assange incarcerated and expressed a view that it’s time for the case to be brought to an end. What I’d say is the Australian Government, actually under both parties, has consistently raised the issues associated with Mr Assange and his incarceration with the US and the UK.

Karvelas: And will you be more active in that space now? Now that you are the Government?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think the PM was asked this in Tokyo and he made the point that his position is that not all foreign affairs is best done with a loud hailer and I would be taking that advice.

Karvelas: Okay. Thank you so much for your time.

Foreign Minister: Thank you very much, Patricia. Good to be with you.

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