Press conference, Nouméa, New Caledonia
Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: I said that I would, when I became Minister I wanted to try and visit every member of the Pacific Islands Forum in my first year. I did that because I thought it was important to re-engage, to listen, to demonstrate our respect for the regional organisation, the Pacific Islands Forum. And it was and is an expression of the priority Australia places on our region, the region of which we are a part.
We share a region and we share an ocean. So I’m very pleased to be here in New Caledonia. I go from here to Tuvalu before returning to Australia, and that will be the last visit in this first year of visits and engagement with Pacific Islands Forum members.
I am happy to take your questions.
Journalist: First question, Minister, about your journey here. It’s a special trip because you’re in French territory, and also a country, a member of the Pacific community. It’s kind of different, if I compare it to others, for instance.
Foreign Minister: Sure, look, I mean, we supported New Caledonia and French Polynesia’s entry as members of the Pacific Islands Forum, as did France, in 2016 I think it was. And we engage with New Caledonia, respecting the competencies which the French state and the government of New Caledonia have.
We, as I said, we share a region, we share an ocean, and we want to engage. We appreciate the contribution that France makes to the stability and peace of the Pacific – a very substantial contribution, both financially and in terms of its military contribution. You know, we look forward to participation in the Croix du Sud in the next – in coming days. I said in my speech, I think 250 Australians are participating in that. We also appreciate the opportunity – I appreciate the opportunity to meet with President Mapou and to speak to the Congress.
Journalist: What about the nickel – the nickel. I’m sorry.
Foreign Minister: You can talk French.
Journalist: You talked about nickel, it’s a very big part of the world. You make a decision about this with a New Caledonian company?
Foreign Minister: In my speech to the Congress I was emphasising the importance of nickel not just now but in the future and, in particular, in the context of the global transition to clean energy. We recognise that it is important to ensure we get that partnership right. We hope that Australian investment and partnership becomes a bigger part of New Caledonia’s future.
Journalist (via interpreter): So which Australian businesses are implicated by these companies?
Foreign Minister: Well, as I’ve said, we know of two companies who are seeking to work more closely and to invest more here in New Caledonia. Obviously these are business discussions, but, again, I would say what is important is not just individual investment opportunities but recognising that as we go forward the demand for nickel globally will increase.
We have some expertise in terms of processing or the technologies associated with clean energy, with batteries. And we would look for an opportunity for more Australian companies to work with you.
Interpreter speaks in French.
Foreign Minister: He knows what I do, he’s suggesting that a woman ask a question.
Journalist: President Mapou has raised concerns that Australia’s nuclear submarine push undermines the Treaty of Rarotonga. Do you anticipate any – have you had any discussions on this today and do you anticipate any further discussions?
Foreign Minister: Look, we have been very pleased to have discussions across the region and with our partners internationally, including obviously the French state but all the members of the Pacific Islands Forum as well. We’re very happy to be as transparent as people seek.
The point I have made, and I will make, is in relation to AUKUS is two points: the first is we are all navigating a world where strategic competition is increasing, that we share a region, we share a future and that we think peace and stability are best served by all of us exercising our agency. That is Australia’s motivation. We are very happy to be very transparent about that.
I want to make this crystal clear – we will ensure we comply with our obligations under the Treaty of Rarotonga. We will ensure we continue to be a party which exercises the highest standards of compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. I expressed this to President Mapou as I have expressed it to other individuals and leaders around the region.
Journalist: Does your meeting with President Mapou demonstrate Australia needs to cooperate with both the New Caledonian government and France when engaging with the Pacific region?
Foreign Minister: Well, look, you know, we respect the competencies of the French state and the government of New Caledonia, and we cooperate accordingly. And, you know, ultimately the future institutional arrangements of New Caledonia are a matter for the New Caledonian people and the French state. Whatever those outcomes, we share a region, we share an ocean, and therefore we share a future. And we’ll continue to cooperate accordingly.
Journalist (via interpreter): The PIF member forum had published a report on New Caledonia’s independence referendum, it was highly critical. What is the position of the Australian Government on this referendum?
Foreign Minister: Look, you know, we have made it very clear that these are matters for the people of New Caledonia and the French state, and we respect that process.
Journalist (via interpreter): These trips to the Pacific, is this one of the ways Australia maintains influence in the face of Chinese soft power. In the context of the China Belt and Road initiative.
Foreign Minister: I am engaging with the region because we’re part of the region. But you’re right to ask about strategic competition, which is really the core of your question. And all of us, all members of the forum, Australia as a – we may be a larger country in the region but we are not a great power globally. We are all seeking to navigate a world where there is more competition. So the question for us is how do we navigate that, and we believe that we best navigate that as a region together. Whatever our different views, we all want peace, we all want stability, and we all want our people to prosper. And we believe that we are stronger together and we can navigate best, that competition, if we do it together. That is why we are so committed to the PIF – Pacific Islands Forum – and that is why I’m engaging as often as I am.
Journalist (via interpreter): Any plans for you to travel to Wallis and Futuna?
Foreign Minister: Not at this stage, but, you know, we never know. Merci beaucoup. Thank you.
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