Interview with Tahlea Aualiitia, The Pacific, ABC

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: China and the Pacific; Papua New Guinea-US security pact; Threat of climate change in the Pacific; Visits to Pacific Island Forum countries.

Tahlea Aualiitia, Host: Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Hello, and thank you for joining the Pacific.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Look, it's great to be with you and I'm really pleased to have the opportunity to talk a bit about what we've been doing in the Pacific over this last year and in the Budget.

Aualiitia: Let's start, though, with the confirmation from PNG's Foreign Minister that they're set to sign a security pact with the US. We hear repeatedly that Australia wants to be the Pacific security partner of choice. So, is this considered competition for Australia?

Foreign Minister: Look, what Papua New Guinea chooses to do in terms of its arrangements is obviously a matter for the government of Papua New Guinea and the Parliament of Papua New Guinea, and they have sovereign decisions they will make.

We will continue to work very closely with PNG, which, as you know, is our closest neighbour. We have a long history of engagement there, long history of connection, a lot of development, engagement, as well as security engagement, and that will continue.

Aualiitia: So, I'm just going to say it, is Australia only concerned when there are security pacts involving China, then?

Foreign Minister: Well, I mean, that's a broader question, isn't it? And the approach we've always taken is that in a time of a lot of contest and competition, and at a time where Pacific island countries are correctly focusing on their development needs, how do we best navigate that together?

We all want a region that is peaceful, stable and prosperous. We want people, any donors, all of those engaging in the Pacific, to respect Pacific architecture, to respect Pacific priorities and to ensure that assistance that's provided doesn't impose unsustainable debt burdens. Our view is that the decisions sovereign nations make should strengthen their sovereignty, not constrain their sovereignty.

Aualiitia: So, speaking of that, recently, in an interview with the Samoa Observer, China accused Australia of trying to sabotage its relationships in the Pacific. It said that development partners could work together and that Australia was potentially driving up geopolitical tensions. What's your response to that?

Foreign Minister: Look, I don't agree and I haven't seen the interview in full from the Chinese official. What I would say is we're a member of the Pacific Island Forum. We have been for many years. We are part of this region. We see this region as home and we share not only a region, but as I say to my colleagues across the Pacific, we share a future. That's how Australia engages with the Pacific. That's what I've really tried to do over this last year, where I've visited every Pacific Island Forum member, to listen and to respond to their priorities.

Aualiitia: Now, Minister, we do have to give you your flowers because of those visits to every member of the Pacific Islands Forum. And I know that you're aware that the region wants peace and prosperity, but there are concerns regarding growing militarization of the region. This spending, this defence spending, is that escalating tensions rather than actually relieving them?

Foreign Minister: The Budget we've just handed down, sought to respond to the very priorities that Pacific Island leaders and foreign ministers and communities reflected to me, articulated to me and to other ministers and the Prime Minister in our travels in the region.

As you know, these are some of the largest EEZs; Economic Exclusion Zones in the world, very large maritime areas that Pacific Island nations have sovereignty over. Hence the discussion about the Blue Pacific Continent, small islands, great oceans.

And part of what we are doing in this package is providing both vessels and infrastructure, but also training for people. So, that that very important part of Pacific sovereignty, which is sovereignty over the ocean that, you know, is so important to Pacific economies, to Pacific culture, can be strengthened.

Aualiitia: Now, I want to talk about climate change because when it comes to security threats facing the region, the Pacific repeatedly says that climate change is their biggest threat. We know that six Pacific countries are calling for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to stop new fossil fuel projects entirely. Will the Australian Government support that?

Foreign Minister: Well, first, on climate being the number one national security threat to Pacific Island nations, it is. And that's something people say to me as well as leaders have articulated, most notably in the Boe Declaration. We understand in terms of our engagement with the Pacific, why we have to bring intent, authenticity and ambition on climate to the relationship. More broadly. What we will do is to work through the multilateral forums to try and elevate the level of ambition for the world.

Aualiitia: So, is that a no?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, what I've said to them is that there are two things. One is the way the world has agreed through Paris and through the Glasgow Agreement, is that all countries will reduce their emissions, and we will do that. I've also been honest with them. I said, look, we're a very fossil fuel-dependent economy. We have to make a very big transformation in a short space of time. The architecture that you're describing is a different architecture to the architecture that the world has already agreed as the way in which emissions will be reduced. So, if the world were to move to a model that, as per your description, that would be something we, all countries would have to consider. But that is not the model the world has moved to.

Aualiitia: Penny Wong, it has been a very busy week for you and I really appreciate you making the time to talk to The Pacific. Thank you.

Foreign Minister: It's lovely to speak to Tahlea and it's really good opportunity to speak to people in the Pacific. And I want to say that it's been a real privilege for me to have this last year. It's been a bit hard on my family because obviously I've been away a lot. But I don't think, very few people get the opportunity to traverse all Pacific Island Forum countries in one year. To some of them more than once to engage at that level, at a personal level with leaders and foreign ministers and communities. And it's been a wonderful experience, and I've really appreciated the welcome I've had.

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