Interview with Pinky Webb, The Source, CNN Philippines

  • Transcript (E&OE)
Subjects: Philippines-Australia Relations; Philippines-Australia Status of Visiting Forces Agreement; ASEAN Nations; South China Sea; Relationship between China and ASEAN Nations, Trade Investment in the Philippines; Southeast Asia Economic Strategy.

Webb: Let's go straight to the source of the story. We have Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong. So good to have you in the Philippines. Welcome.

Foreign Minister: Thank you. It's fantastic to be here and great to be on your show, Pinky.

Webb: And thank you for the interview. We are so excited to have you. So, many questions, but first, I want to find out what is the purpose of your four-day visit here in the country?

Foreign Minister: Well, the most important thing is to come to the Philippines, because obviously, we haven't been in government for that long. We're just under a year and I made a pledge that I would visit every ASEAN nation and obviously, here I am in the Philippines.

This is a very important partner for Australia. You are a very important partner and you're a very important player within ASEAN. So, I'm really pleased to be here, looking forward to the meetings and looking forward to learning more about what we can do together.

Webb: It seems like you have a jam-packed four-day visit. How would you describe Philippine-Australian relationship today?

Foreign Minister: Look, I think we are very close partners. I think we have a long-standing defence cooperation relationship. We need to do more and certainly Australia wants to bring more to the table when it comes to the economic relationship.

But a key outcome of the visit will be to progress the uplifting of our relationship from a comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership, one that really demonstrates the value we each accord to each other, the importance of the relationship and I think reflects more appropriately who we really are to each other. So, we will take forward what our two leaders agreed, President Marcos and our Prime Minister, and we will work to make sure we can elevate the relationship to a strategic partnership.

Webb: I'm going to jump into that already, because it was during a meeting in APEC, I believe that the two leaders, our President and the Prime Minister of Australia, Albanese, met. It was November and they talked about elevating both countries relationship to a strategic partnership.

Foreign Minister: That's right.

Webb: Any progress on this? What does this really entail?

Foreign Minister: Well, this is why I'm here and this is a big priority for us and I believe it is for your government as well, because we see the importance of this relationship. So, moving from comprehensive to strategic is an uplift in the relationship.

It says something about the value we each accord to each other and it says something about the strategic importance we place on each other in this region. And at this time, and I know you've been talking about this a fair bit on your show, there's a lot happening in the region. There's a lot of competition and a lot of contest. And it's very important that partners work together. And we agree with President Marcos when he talks about the value of partnerships.

Webb: The Philippines has two Visiting Forces Agreements, one with the United States and the other with Australia, which is called the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement that came into effect in 2012. Eleven years later, since its ratification, how has this helped, would you say, both countries, Australian Defence Force and the Philippine troops?

Foreign Minister: This is a partnership and through this partnership, of which that agreement is a central part, but not the only, we are able to work together. We are able to each bring to the table things that we have particular expertise in and we're able to together grow our knowledge. And I think, as you're probably aware, we've got a joint exercise on currently where we're learning from you and hopefully you're learning something from us as well.

Webb: Yeah. Kasangga 2023 actually formally opened last Monday. There are 114 members of the Philippine Army and from the Australian Defence Force, there's 43 together in what is called close quarter battle. It's interesting to note that from both leaders, from both the Australian Defence Force and the Philippine Army, the Defence Force of Australia was saying there's so much to learn with Philippine troops regarding jungle warfare. And then the Philippine troops are saying that there's so much to learn from Australia, especially with their equipment, which is part of the Philippine wish list. How can this actually even improve or probably progress and move forward?

Foreign Minister: I'm hopeful that when we have an agreement for the elevation of the relationship to the strategic partnership, some of these issues, we can work through a practical demonstration of some of the issues you've raised. So, I'm hopeful that those discussions will yield even more practical outcomes. But as you correctly identify, we each bring something different to the table. You obviously do have firsthand expertise in jungle and urban warfare and urban conflict. So, these are things that are useful training for our personnel and vice versa, but with different, different skills from the Australian side. So, it's great to work with you.

Webb: Both learning from each other. Tensions in the region have risen, of course, due to conflicting claims in the South China Sea. The arbitral ruling in 2016, of course, favoured the Philippines against China. China rejecting this ruling. What is Australia's role in the region in the context of its national interest?

Foreign Minister: Well, our national interest, I believe, aligns with your national interests very closely. And that is we all want a region that is stable, peaceful and prosperous. And we all want a region in which rules ameliorate the exercise of power. And it is through that that countries can maintain their sovereignty and their capacity to make their own decisions. So, we were very supportive of that tribunal ruling. We have been supportive of the Philippines assertion of its national interests. And we will continue to be, because ultimately, states like us - so, we regard ourselves, we're not a great power. Some call us a middle power, but we want a region where norms and rules continue to apply. We don't want a region which is dominated to an extent where other countries cannot make their own decisions. And so for us, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is important. It matters, and as I know it does to Philippines, it's about safeguarding your resources, it's about safeguarding your sovereignty. And we want to work with you and others on that.

Webb: What about a possible code of conduct agreement between China and ASEAN states? Is this something Australia will welcome?

Foreign Minister: Look, this is a matter ultimately for ASEAN to consider. What we have said is we would urge ASEAN not to agree anything which derogates from the rights of states under international law.

So, obviously, these are matters that have been before ASEAN for some time. We respect ASEAN centrality and they have, as an entity, a right to discuss these issues. All we are saying as a party that has an interest, as many do in the South China Sea and in international law, is we would urge states not to agree to anything that lessened their rights.

Webb: Minister Wong, tell us about the status of this trilateral agreement. It was discussed between the Philippines, the United States and Australia. Any progress or, I guess, what will this agreement actually cover?

Foreign Minister: Look, we want to explore with you more opportunities for partnerships and whether they are via formal agreements or via exercises or via informal cooperation or dialogue. Look, we live in a time where there's competition between great powers and there is a lot of disruption. Before we came to power, I said these are the most difficult strategic circumstances Australia has faced since World War II. And I regret to say, after nearly a year of being Foreign Minister, I think I was not overstating it.

So, what do we do with that? What we have to do is we have to work together more and we have to work out where we can work together and on what. And we have to recognise that all of us have a role to play. The region we want is stable, secure, prosperous, where our sovereignty is respected, where peaceful, yes. That doesn't happen just because we hope for it. It happens because we act.

Webb: We have to do something about it.

Foreign Minister: We do something about it. And one of the things we are most appreciative of with Philippines is that you recognise that, that is a real act of leadership in your region.

Webb: It's a four-day visit, as mentioned a while ago, talks will revolve around a number of issues and I said it's going to be a jam-packed one. So, today you will be very busy. Your meeting with officials of government will happen tomorrow.

Foreign Minister: Yes, tomorrow is the big day of meetings. Today, I get to play some football. Football for Humanity at an elementary school, so I'm looking forward to that. And I'm also lucky enough to have lunch with the President's Private Sector Advisory Council, so I look forward to that. We're also having a visit to the Coast Guard and I know you've had, I think, a Vice Admiral on from the Coast Guard. Yes, we want to do more in the maritime domain with you. So, watch this space. We'll be talking with them about what more we can do on the maritime corporation front.

Webb: Nice. I hope I have time for one last question. Very important in terms of engagement in trade and investment, is there anything you can share with us?

Foreign Minister: We know we want to do more in Southeast Asia on the economic front, on trade investment. So, I have asked, and the Prime Minister appointed Nicholas Moore, who is the former head of Macquarie Bank, which would be known to most people throughout Southeast Asia, to draft a Southeast Asian economic strategy. Nicholas Moore has been in the region. I think he's been here just recently. And I said to him, look, I know we're not China, we're not the US, we're not Japan. We're not a power of that economic scale, but we can do more with what we have and the things that we are good at, and we have some things we're good at. So, let's work out what we can do in each of the countries in Southeast Asia to elevate the economic engagement.

Webb: Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong. It's so good to meet you. I hope to see you again someday.

Foreign Minister: I promise.

Webb: Maybe your next visit.

Foreign Minister: There you go. I've committed to another interview.

Webb: Thank you so much for your time.

Foreign Minister: It's great to be with you.

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