SENATOR THE HON PENNY WONG
LEADER OF THE GOVERNMENT IN THE SENATE
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Subjects: Relations in the Pacific and Southeast Asia; AUKUS agreement; Tibet; Human rights; Taiwan; CPTPP; PALM scheme; Port of Darwin; Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; First Nations diplomacy; Papua New Guinea population; Detention of Julian Assange; Regional cooperation; Climate change.
JANE NORMAN: Minister, thank you for both a very frank assessment of the strategic environment and a really comprehensive explanation of Australia’s position and response to it.
To start off questioning, some of the framing of this speech by some media outlets today sort of framed it as a counterargument to comments that were made by former Prime Minister Paul Keating in this very forum only a month ago. And in that speech he said, “Running around the Pacific islands with a lay around your neck handing out money is not foreign policy; it’s a consular task.” And this was, of course, criticism of you by one of your own side.
Before we get into a broader discussion dissecting all the issues that you raised in your speech today, I was wondering, were you forewarned that Mr Keating was going to be making those comments and have you spoken to Mr Keating since?
FOREIGN MINISTER: You can probably work that out for yourself. But what I’d say on the Pacific is the importance of the Pacific to Australia, the importance of a peaceful, stable region to Australia I think I laid out in the speech and has been well understood by previous Prime Ministers and governments.
But I think on Mr Keating what I would say is this: I think in tone and substance he diminished both his legacy and the subject matter.
JANE NORMAN: All right. Our first question today is Andrew Tillett for the Australian Financial Review.
ANDREW TILLET: Thanks, Jane. Minister, thank you for your speech.
FOREIGN MINISTER: Sorry it was a bit long.
JANE NORMAN: No, no, that’s fine.
ANDREW TILLETT: Five minutes over; I’m sure the ABC won’t mind. Look, you outlined a case, I guess, effectively in my interpretation, for the importance of collective action from the region. You talked about in your travels that the region doesn’t want a closed hierarchical region dominated by one particular power. But how much are you actually seeing from the region about this sort of determination to band together? I mean, we’ve put our cards on the table with things like AUKUS, the re-invigorated approach to statecraft and diplomacy that you’re taking. What are we actually seeing, though, the other countries doing in this space?
FOREIGN MINISTER: First before I do that can I acknowledge there are quite a number of members of the Diplomatic Corps here today, and I thank for your attendance and your engagement.
And I would make this point: I think all the countries of the world, but particularly of our region – so the Indo-Pacific and obviously the Pacific Islands Forum members particularly and the members of ASEAN, we are all seeking to navigate a world in which strategic competition is increasing. So, there is both dialogue and thinking and consideration about how we navigate that world. What I say is we share a region, we share a future, and that peace is best served by all of us exercising our agency.
ANDREW TILLETT: Are other countries doing it?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I think you should probably talk to them, but I would observe that all countries of the region are seeking to navigate that world. And much of my engagement and the engagement of colleagues is focused on how we can best work – bearing in mind, you know, people have different perspectives, different geographies, different views about their national interests. But that there is alignment and which comes and which we encourage – I shouldn’t say that – there is alignment which we think can be encouraged because we do share future. And when I say alignment I don’t mean, you know, who’s side are you own, but alignment around what we want, which is the sort of region with characteristics that I’ve described in the speech. Thanks, Andrew.
JANE NORMAN: Our next question is from Anna Henderson from SBS.
ANNA HENDERSON: Anna Henderson, SBS World News and NITV. Minister, the head of Tibet’s Government in exile has told US Congress it’s dying a “slow death under Chinese rule.” SBS has spoken to a diaspora here who are worried the world’s attention is turning away. The Australian-Tibet Council wants the government to impose Magnitsky-style sanctions on CCP officials for alleged human rights violations in Tibet. Sanctions have already been placed on Russian, Iranian and Myanmar officials. Should Chinese officials be next, and is that a prospect your government will consider?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, I wrote an op-ed some months ago where I tried to set out how we approach our advocacy for human rights. And I made the point first that obviously we don’t live in a world where we can determine other countries’ policies. So the judgement is what is the most – what are the effective ways to engage, to encourage and articulate or advocate our support for these principles, international principles, the observation of, you know, human rights obligations that states have signed up to. And I made the point that we will do it in various ways. Sanctions are part of the answer, but they are not the only part. I would obviously never speculate on what or might not be considered, but I would just say they are only one part of how we might approach or how we do approach our advocacy in relation to human rights.
ANNA HENDERSON: Do you want to share any other parts you might be thinking about in that particular scenario?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I think we keep – we do, as we saw the German Foreign Minister do over the weekend, we continue to articulate our view about the importance of human rights privately and publicly. We work through the UN fora, including the Human Rights Council, as we have in relation, for example, to Xinjiang and also Iran. We work multilaterally and regionally to continue to seek that countries put pressure on countries of the world where there is an absence of – you know, where the fulfilment of the obligations that we all have to these universal principles is wanting. Thank you.
JANE NORMAN: Matthew Knot from the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
MATTHEW KNOT: Thank you for your speech, Minister. You spoke a lot about Taiwan and avoiding conflict there in your speech. US President Joe Biden on at least four occasions has said that America would intervene militarily if China was to attack Taiwan, and that’s been noted as quite a significant departure from the past policy of strategic ambiguity. Do we support this new approach as a way to deter China, or do you think it’s raising the tensions and heightening the temperature in the region?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, it’s my job to speak for Australia, which is obviously a middle power. It’s not – and I note, you know, the US position that it has articulated has been that it, you know, remains of the view that the status quo is the best way forward to maintain peace in the terms that I’ve outlined in the speech.
I thought it was important to address Taiwan, and it seems to be a question that I wasn’t that effective in my argument, Matthew, because I was being very direct and very frank but deliberately so when I said that someone in my position doesn’t just refuse to engage in these hypotheses because I want to avoid a question.
I do so because I think this sort of speculation is unhelpful, and our task – my job – obviously you have a different job – but my job and the task of those of us in these positions is to do all that we can to press for the maintenance of the status quo through both deterrence and reassurance.
MATTHEW KNOT: My point was just that the US President –
FOREIGN MINISTER: I thought there was only one question each, but every single person – every single person – has got a double up. Dear me.
JANE NORMAN: I need to assert my authority.
FOREIGN MINISTER: That’s all right, you go again.
MATTHEW KNOT: No, just that the US President himself has engaged in this scenario.
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, he’s going to be here next month, so maybe you can ask him about that.
MATTHEW KNOT: I would love to.
FOREIGN MINISTER: I don’t speak for the United States.
JANE NORMAN: Our next question from Clare Armstrong, Daily Telegraph, News Corp.
CLARE ARMSTRONG: Thanks for your speech, Minister. I’m Clare Armstrong from News Corp Australia. There are a lot of financial incentives for the sort of mass re-engagement we’re seeing from across the board in Australia, from the businesses – with China from businesses wanting to make use of trade barriers easing, universities wanting students, state Premiers lining up to travel to China. It seems the adage once bitten twice shy does not apply here to some of those institutions’ engagement with China. So what is your government going to do to ensure that they aren’t as exposed to retaliation as we have seen over previous years? For example, would you consider ever allowing a state to sign another BRI, or are those days past us?
FOREIGN MINISTER: There’s quite a lot of in that.
CLARE ARMSTRONG: Sorry.
FOREIGN MINISTER: So I might go backwards. The first thing is on BRI. Obviously, we have the foreign arrangements regulatory scheme which would mean that that would come to the federal government – it’s likely to come to the federal government for consideration so – and we would assess it in terms of Australia’s national interest.
But more broadly I’d make this point, what can we do? What I’ve tried to do and what I’ll keep doing is outlining, explaining and articulating what I see as the future as opposed to the past of our bilateral relationship with China. That I have been very clear that we seek to stabilise the relationship. I think both countries know we are not going to go back to where we were 15 years ago. The point I made in the speech about various domains here, the strategic and economic being – coming together remains. So what I described as how things were under Mr Howard where you could have your strategic relationship with in the United States and your economic relationship with China and the world stayed separate, we don’t live in that sort of world anymore.
I’ve also made the – I’ve made it very clear that I think smart businesses understand the importance of resilience, understand the importance of diversification. Many have diversified, many industries and sectors have taken the opportunity that – or have taken the circumstances of these trade barriers, trade impediments, to diversify. And I think, you know, that is a smart thing to do.
Having said that, as I also said in the speech, numerically China is likely to remain our largest trading partner in aggregate. We’ve made clear to the Chinese government that we do not think that the current trade impediments are justified and we hope that the process of Australia’s suspending its current action before the WTO and the process of dialogue is the pathway for that to be resolved, and we hope, if that is the case, that that same pathway can be applied for wine.
JANE NORMAN: Okay, next question, Ben Packham from The Australian.
BEN PACKHAM: Thank you, Minister. Australia and other CPTPP nations face a difficult choice in the next 12 months or so whether to allow China and, indeed, Taiwan into that agreement. Scott Morrison said China had little hope of gaining entry, while some say that allowing China in could force Beijing to lift its standards and play by global rules. What’s your view, and what would both economies need to do to get Australia’s support to join the CPTPP?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, look, the CPTPP has very high standards, and we welcome the United Kingdom’s participation after quite a lengthy process of discussion and dialogue about its participation in the CPTPP. We would obviously look to maintaining whomever is seeking to apply for membership – Australia’s position would be to ensure that the standards which are set in the CPTPP are maintained.
BEN PACKHAM: Do you have an open mind though on the success of both of those countries – both those economies, I should say?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Yeah, look, I understand why you’re asking that question, and it’s not – I don’t propose in relation to that issue to engage in sort of hypotheses or commentary publicly, which you’d understand, Ben. I’m sure you’ll do something now with my answer.
BEN PACKHAM: Just report it.
FOREIGN MINISTER: Okay. Everyone can judge that tomorrow.
JANE NORMAN: Okay. Our next question is from Andrew Greene from ABC News. I just remind our journos that there is still a long list, so please keep it to one question.
ANDREW GREENE: I won’t defy Jane. Minister, I’ll follow on from my colleague Clare’s question about re-engagement with China. I think this week Mark McGowan is making his first return visit, and we saw Dan Andrews controversially not take any journalists with him to China. What do you do as Foreign Minister before these visits? Do you speak to some of the state leaders before they go over to ensure that there is what your colleague Don Farrell calls a ‘Team Australia approach’ as they’re starting to engage with Chinese officials and potentially make deals?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, look, obviously we took – well, the first visit to China by an Australian minister for some time was obviously in – was that December, Clare? Yes – and we did make sure we sought to bring and did bring some pool journalists with us because we thought that it was important for me to articulate to Australians why –what we were doing and why we were doing it and to have that engagement.
Since that time what we’ve seen is more engagement, not just from premiers but from business community. We think it is a good thing that we are engaging. As we said, we think engagement is the way in which we can pursue our national interests and, hence, the frame that I’ve articulated to you many times – cooperate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interests.
In terms of the Premiers’ trips, obviously there – I think it’s been publicly reported there’s been some we’ve ensured that people have been briefed if they’ve sought it or we’ve reached out proactively, and we’ll continue to do that.
ANDREW GREEN: Only one question.
JANE NORMAN: Can I ask you: did Mark McGowan seek a briefing?
FOREIGN MINISTER: I understand that Mr McGowan has had engagement or his department has had engagement with my department.
JANE NORMAN: The next question is from Katina Curtis from the West Australian.
KATINA CURTIS: Thanks, Minister. And, yes, I had some interest in Mr McGowan’s trip to Chinas as well, but I will ask you about something slightly different. You touched on in your answer just before the foreign arrangements scheme. Can I ask how that’s operating? Is it operating as it was intended, in your view? And will you be reviewing the way that those arrangements are recorded and which ones?
FOREIGN MINISTER: My recollection is there’s a statutory review required, or certainly when we passed the legislation that was part of the public discussion. So we will go through that. It is a quite a labour-intensive process which, you know, I think Labor in opposition when we gave bipartisan support to it I and others raised some concern about the way in which the legislation was drafted, whether or not that would be too labour intensive. It’s certainly proven to be labour intensive, but we’ll go through a proper process and engage with community and the business community, states and territories and others and, presumably, the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, which dealt with it before. Thank you.
JANE NORMAN: Our next question Ben Westcott from Bloomberg.
BEN WESTCOTT: Thank you very much for your speech, Foreign Minister. Ben Westcott from Bloomberg. On the Pacific, since coming to office your government has improved access to visas for Pacific workers to come to Australia, but regional leaders and regional diplomats have both still expressed concerns over inflexibility when it comes to visas and entry requirements. During her recent visit to Australia, Samoan Prime Minister, Fiame Mata’afa, said that – she expressed similar concerns and floated the idea of a regional-free travel zone. Is that something you would consider?
FOREIGN MINISTER: I was – I really regretted, because I had suggested to the Prime Minister that Prime Minister Fiame be invited, I regretted I got Covid that week because she’s such an impressive Pacific leader and someone – you know, I think it’s very important for us to engage more with the Pacific leadership rather than having it sort of mediated through Australian ministers all the time. So I was pleased we got an opportunity to speak –hear her.
Look, that is – I saw those comments obviously. That was a long way further from the government’s policy. The government’s policy is for increased labour movement and a Pacific engagement visa. We are disappointed that the opposition appears to not understand the importance of this.
JANE NORMAN: We’ll just give you a break to have a glass water; it’s a long time speaking on your feet. Olivia Caisley from Sky News is our next questioner.
OLIVIA CAISLEY: Olivia Caisley from Sky News. Thank you very much for your speech. The Port of Darwin is due to returned to Australian hands on November 15 2114. Last year the Prime Minister announced a review into this controversial lease arrangement. Where is that review process up to, and I’m curious: would terminating the lease be consistent with us shaping the region in our interests or could maintaining strategic balance allow for the lease to continue?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Okay, I’m not sure – I think the way I would look at it, first, is whether or not maintaining the current arrangement, lease arrangement, in relation to the port that the previous government entered into was in Australia’s national interests. Obviously, that review, from memory, was just initiated or conducted by the Department of Defence. I don’t have a timeline on response to that, but I can find out and come back to you.
But, more generally, I think the question is, is it in our national interest for those lease arrangements to be maintained. That’s the question that, you know, the government will need to consider.
OLIVIA CAISLEY: Okay, and is the review at liberty to recommend, for example, that the lease be terminated?
FOREIGN MINISTER: It’s not a review that is being conducted by my department. So I’m sorry, I’m not in a position to outline much detail. Thank you.
JANE NORMAN: Minister, I just have an lozenge passed on from your office, If that helps. Have a brief break.
FOREIGN MINISTER: No, no, you go.
JANE NORMAN: All right, Tess Ikonomou from the AAP.
TESS IKONOMOU: Thank you very much, Minister. You said you wanted to draw upon the rich history of Indigenous Australians as a tool when working with Pacific neighbours. What will that look like, and how are you developing that policy with Indigenous Australians?
FOREIGN MINISTER: That’s a really good question, and can I start by saying this: you know, whenever I going go to a Pacific island country I’m always if not met by welcomed by, I always have an engagement with traditional leaders. And it is – you know, it’s not seen as something unusual; it’s part of how you engage. So you gone to Vanuatu and you engage not just with the parliamentary leaders but the chiefly system. So I think the power of our First Nations people, particularly in the Pacific, gives us a way in which we can engage and connect that we haven’t previously utilised. So I’m excited by that.
But this is still something, you know, we haven’t done before. And part of why we have appointed the ambassador, as I described in my speech, is we do want him to engage with First Nations communities about what this looks like, where we should start, bearing in mind, of course, it may be new to us now, but again, as I made the point, our First Nations peoples were our first diplomats and our first traders. And when the Prime Minister went to Indonesia he spoke about this, about the trade between First Nations in the north of Australia and the Macassans. So if that were drawing on a heritage of some antiquity, but we are trying to apply it today. So, you know, I feel this doesn’t get a lot of headlines, but I think it matters. It matters about us and it also matters about our engagement in the region.
JANE NORMAN: Daniel Hurst from the Guardian.
DANIEL HURST: Daniel Hurst from Guardian Australia. Minister, you spoke a lot in the speech about Australia sharpening its own articulation of its interests and regional interests. As you know, many countries in our region, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand, Thailand and the Philippines, have signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Labor had a platform commitment to sign and ratify it subject to several conditions. Do you expect that Australia will be in a condition to sign it in this term of parliament, and what undertakings have you given the US and the UK on this front?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, the position – it’s not about any private undertakings. The position is what is articulated in the platform resolution, which does go to some of the challenging issues associated with the TPNW. I think the TPNW is of substantial, normative value. I think – and we share the objective of a world that is free of nuclear weapons.
We do believe that the best pathway for that is to ensure that the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT, is acted upon and is progressed. We think that is the most important framework.
In terms of the TPNW, I think the fact that so many states have signed it demonstrates the frustration that there has been insufficient progress in the context of the NPT. And if this can spur that – more progress in that arena – that is a good thing. But we set out very transparently in the party platform our consideration of that treaty.
DANIEL HURST: Open to signing this term? This term of parliament?
FOREIGN MINISTER: I’m not going to set those sorts of timelines. What I would say to you is, you know, we set out the conditions or the considerations clearly, but we share their ambition for a world that is free of nuclear weapons.
JANE NORMAN: Our next question, Melissa Coade from The Mandarin.
MELISSA COADE: Hi, Minister. Melissa Coade from The Mandarin. My question is about national identity. So you discussed the importance of partnership over paternal instruction. And when I think about –
FOREIGN MINISTER: Partners, not patriarchs.
MELISSA COADE: I stand corrected.
FOREIGN MINISTER: No, no, that’s the line you’re referring to.
MELISSA COADE: When I think about the debate with respect to AUKUS and the sort of catastrophic worst-case scenario that you talk about trying to avert, security and the cost of that dominates the headlines, less so questions about Australia and how everyday Australians see themselves in the world. Do you have any concerns about whether both the defence and the strategic policy are keeping up with Australians’ sense of themselves and, I guess, the sort of concerns about uncertainty and economic pressures they face as everyday citizens?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, I think – well, a number of things. First, I’d make this observation. you know, Jane or someone talked about how – when it was that I got elected to parliament. It was a long time ago and I’ve seen the parliament’s character change over that time. Most – the biggest shift, you know, like everything, change is sort of incremental or you don’t think it’s happening then all of a sudden something happens and you think that demonstrates not just a change at the surface but a change – a fundamental change, and the increased diversity of the parliament and particularly the last election, the face of the parliament is now more accurately reflecting the diversity of the Australian community. So that is an important thing.
The second point I’d make is I think that the - what I hope is the way in which I’ve tried to frame the sort of region we want is open and inclusive. It’s not a fixed view about, you know, you’re with us or against us. It goes to the qualities of the region which we want which preserve the capacity of countries to make their own decisions.
And the final point I’d make is this is central to how I talk about us, and, you know, I talk about First Nations’ heritage and I talk about the diversity of the Australian community. And I make the point, as I made in the speech, that this is – gives us common ground with so much of the world. And that’s a national and a natural asset.
JANE NORMAN: Our next question is Amanda Copp from the Community Broadcasting Network.
AMANDA COPP: Hello, Amanda Copp from the Community Radio Network and National Radio News. Recent population estimates in Papua New Guinea show that they have a potential population of around 17 million, which is double what was previously estimated. Are you concerned about the development in PNG and the potential risks that that poses to Australia, such as the spread of diseases, possible law and order breakdown and Chinese influence?
FOREIGN MINISTER: I’m concerned for the people and the nation of Papua New Guinea who I want to be as strong and secure and resilient as they can be – as it can be and as they can be and the work that we do with Papua New Guinea is directed to that.
Obviously, the high population growth means their own infrastructure, educational security needs are increased. And we will continue to work very closely with PNG because a stable, secure and prosperous PNG is in our interests. It’s also – you know, that’s what you want and aspire for those – for all in the world, particularly for those in your region. But it is in Australia’s interests, and that’s why we work with PNG and the other interests of the Pacific.
JANE NORMAN: David Crowe from the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
DAVID CROWE: Thanks, Jane. Thanks, Minister, for your speech. I thought I’d preface my question with a thank you to you for taking media with you when you went to Beijing last year, taking that pool media crew. Also, I think – I’m a director of the National Press Club. Thank you on behalf of the Club for expressing concern about the detention of Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street journalist who’s currently detained in Russia.
That leads me to a question about another person who’s currently awaiting hearing, an extradition hearing, in this case Julian Assange. Given the concern about Evan Gershkovich, is now the time to step up Australian diplomatic pressure to secure the release of Julian Assange? Is there more that the Australian government can do to secure his release?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I want to start with a sort of high-level statement which the PM has made and I’ve made. We think Mr Assange’s case has dragged on for too long. We think that it should be brought to a close. That’s our public position, and that reflects what we have communicated at leader level and at my level and at other levels throughout our engagement. That remains our view. We’ll continue to do that.
So I know that there are some who like to posit you’re not doing this, you’re not doing that. But what I can say to you is we are very clear about our view. There are obviously limits to what you can do in terms of another country’s legal proceedings, and we’re not a party to those proceedings. We can’t intervene in those proceedings, just as the UK and the US can’t intervene in our legal proceedings.
I was pleased that we were able to ensure there was a visit, that my High Commissioner met with Mr Assange to, you know, in order to better understand his welfare. It would be good to continue to be able to provide consular support to him. I know that some of Mr Assange’s advocates have been raising – rightly – whether or not the current conditions at Belmarsh are appropriate. And that’s something I will be asking my High Commissioner to engage on.
JANE NORMAN: Second last question, Nic Stuart from the Canberra Times.
NIC STUART: A wonderful speech.
FOREIGN MINISTER: You’re the first person who’s said that. I was starting to get a bit paranoid.
NIC STUART: One of the ambassadors for a Pacific or Asian country, none of which are here today –they apparently thought that they knew what was coming – one of them said to me that our foreign policy was useful idiocy or useful innocence – in other words, it was basically an attempt to try and draw the veil over the reality, which is that we are completely locked in with America. Discuss.
FOREIGN MINISTER: I refer to my speech. I mean, I think I – really, I don’t think that proposition in the face of what I articulated today stands up.
JANE NORMAN: Or final question today, Tim Shaw, who is a director here at the club.
TIM SHAW: Thank you, Jane, and thank you, Minister, very much. Welcome back, and thank you for celebrating free speech as you outlined your answer to Dave Crowe regarding Julian Assange. You’ve spoken about the Indo-Pacific. You’ve spoken about, you know, partnership, not patriarchy or paternalism. Can you see a day where the French government and the Australian government, the Chinese government and the Australian government may be working in unison, particularly in light of global warming, climate change, rising sea levels in the Pacific rather than just diplomacy? Is there infrastructure opportunity between various nations in the Pacific?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, I think that – I’ll start my answer again. It’s a good question because it goes to – one of the risks of increasing strategic competition, is that the focus on and the space for cooperation in those areas where actually cooperation is needed is diminished.
And when I talk about cooperate where we can and disagree where we must, I’m doing that deliberately, not just to give the balance but to say, “Look, there are areas we would want to cooperate more closely.” And climate is one of them. I mean, climate is – there is no effective response for humanity on climate change unless we’re all in. And there’s no way we can game our way out of it. There’s no way we can sort of have a smart diplomatic strategy. Fundamentally, if we’re actually going to respond to the challenge of climate change for the next generations – bearing in mind we’re already at a mitigating risk point, not an averting point – the only way we do that is if we’re all in.
So in the speech I talked about cooperation on renewable energy. We will keep working on broad areas of cooperation, and part of why we want to co-host a conference of the parties in the UN framework in the Convention on Climate Change in the Pacific is in order to bring that imperative that the Pacific understands so viscerally to the multilateral context. Thank you very much, everybody.
TIM SHAW: Thank you.
JANE NORMAN: Minister, thank you for your speech. Thank you for staying a bit longer.
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