Interview with Laura Tingle, ABC 7.30

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia-Vanuatu Bilateral Security Agreement; China’s development assistance to the Pacific; Pacific priorities; climate change.

Laura Tingle, Host: Penny Wong, welcome to the programme.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Good to be with you Laura.

Tingle: You've noted today that significantly, this agreement with Vanuatu will be made public, unlike the agreement with China. It's a wide agreement. It's not just about military security, is it? It's about human security, policing, the environment. Can you just tell us a little bit about how it will work?

Foreign Minister: Look, this is a security agreement, a bilateral security agreement, which seeks to pick up the broader definition of security that really originates in the Boe Declaration from a few years ago. And that recognises that security is multidimensional. It includes climate, it includes development assistance, it includes economic issues, as well as a more narrow definition of military security and obviously also cybersecurity and maritime security. So it's an agreement which picks up the broadest definition of security, which the Pacific have already endorsed through the Boe Declaration, which was, of course, a Pacific leaders’ declaration.

Tingle: Does it significantly change the balance of Australia's relationship in Vanuatu in terms of the balance between military and aid we give them?

Foreign Minister: Look, Prime Minister Kalsakau at the announcement today described the agreement as the embodiment of our partnership with Vanuatu, and I thought that was a very good way to describe it, that it embodies the full breadth and spectrum of our engagement with Vanuatu, the ways in which we seek to listen and respond to Vanuatu's priorities. But, of course, having it in one agreement, a treaty, is a way of making sure that we have the architecture to respond quickly, we have a basis for ensuring continued dialogue. So, look, we think it's a really important step forward and we're really pleased that the Prime Minister saw fit to sign it with me today.

Tingle: Just going to that point about policing, though, there was alarm about the role of the Chinese getting involved in policing activities in the Solomon Islands. How does this differ?

Foreign Minister: Look, more broadly, the position Australia takes is the position that Pacific Island leaders have taken, which is security, in the broadest sense, is the responsibility of the Pacific family, of which Australia is a part. And we believe that the region is best served when the region takes responsibility for its security. And that's the approach we'll continue to take.

Tingle: You gave a significant speech in Washington last week in which you sounded a lot like an interlocutor for our Pacific and regional neighbours. Advising the US that policy needs to be based on a clear understanding of what the Indo-Pacific wants, and that partly involved demonstrating an interest beyond just a security interest. What do you think the Pacific does want from us and what does it want from the US?

Foreign Minister: I think it's really important, whether it's in Southeast Asia, so the Indo-Pacific more broadly or in the Pacific region, that we don't simply ask people to choose, we ask them to choose what sort of region they want. We ask them to work with us on the sort of region we want. And we want a region that's peaceful, prosperous and stable, in which sovereignty is respected. And that's the approach we want to take to the Pacific and the Indo-Pacific more broadly. And it's the approach, as a US ally, we would encourage our ally to take. This goes to making sure you meet people where they are, and you respond to their priorities, and you listen to their priorities. And that's certainly the way in which the Albanese Government is seeking to engage with the region.

Tingle: Well, in that spirit, is there a way that Australia and its allies could cooperate with China over development aid in the region?

Foreign Minister: China will continue to provide development aid to the region, and I think it's reasonable for countries of the region to look at what assistance is available. What we are saying is we will work with you on your priorities, we will listen to the priorities that you have, and we will also work with you as your principal security partner. Because we do think it's a good thing if the region navigates this period of change together and that we are all more secure if the region responds collectively to any security issues.

Tingle: Well, you've often talked about the Pacific Islands Forum as being the premier body for consultation in the region. Given there is now this sense of intense competition to win the favour of Pacific nations, is there any merit in the idea that's floated around in the past in Australian foreign policy circles of a donor forum or roundtable to assist the Pacific Islands Forum in sorting out its goals and aspirations?

Foreign Minister: Well, actually, the Pacific Islands Forum has already made clear its aspirations. It has a 2050 strategy which has been described by Pacific leaders as their 'North Star', which makes clear the spectrum of objectives, the spectrum of development objectives, that the Pacific have made clear are a priority. And we think that should inform the way in which countries work with the Pacific. When Australia comes to engagement with the Pacific, we want to strengthen the sovereignty of the countries involved. We don't want to impose unsustainable debt burdens and we want to respond to their priorities. That's how we would encourage all other countries to engage with the region.

Tingle: You've identified climate change as being at the top of the Pacific's list of concerns. Have you or do you anticipate offering any further initiatives on this? And what have your hosts been saying they would like to see?

Foreign Minister: Climate is the number one security issue, number one national security issue for the Pacific. We know that because they told us that and they've told us that more than once and they've told us that over many years. And I think it's really important that we understand when the Pacific speak about climate, they speak with the power and authenticity that comes from lived experience. Pacific peoples live the experience of living with climate change. They live the experience of its effects. In ways sometimes which are extremely, extremely confronting and extremely difficult. So, I think that the Pacific family have been encouraged by the greater ambition on the part of Australia since the election of the new government. And we'll continue to work with Pacific Island nations on how best to manage and adapt to climate change and how best to ensure that the world stays on a path to much more ambition when it comes to climate. I went today - just a very small example - to an area which has been affected by storm surge, an area where we also saw bad coastal erosion with the Prime Minister and members of the bipartisan delegation. We planted mangroves, and there's a project there which is being community-led, ground up, to improve the protection of that part of the coastline through making sure mangroves are planted and nurtured. So just a small example of some of the things that we need to do.

Tingle: Penny Wong, thanks so much for your time tonight.

Foreign Minister: Great to be with you.

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