Subjects: COVID management, Pacific Islands Forum, US engagement in the Pacific, Kiribati.
ALLISON LANGDON, HOST: I want to bring in now Penny Wong, the Foreign Minister, who joins us now from Suva in Fiji. Penny, just before we get to what's happening where you are, obviously a lot happening here back at home, just your thoughts on that cruise ship docking in Sydney with more than a hundred cases of COVID on board?
PENNY WONG, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Obviously COVID is pretty challenging to manage and certainly, people arriving with COVID is challenging. But I have to say, Ally, if you don't mind, I've been on the road and I'll leave those sorts of things to Mark Butler and my colleagues back in Australia to manage and I'm sure they'll give you a much better answer than I'll be able to give you.
LANGDON: I understand you've got your hands full where you are. Obviously, you're there at that crucial Pacific Islands Forum. Look, we know that the US is splashing the cash and showing a bit of love at the moment. Do you think it's going to be enough to woo our Pacific neighbours?
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: I don't think we should think about it like that. I think we should think about what do we want in the world and what sort of region do we want here in the Pacific and more broadly in the Indo-Pacific? We want a region that's peaceful, that's prosperous, that's stable, but where sovereignty is respected. And what that does require is engagement from a number of powers, a number of countries, and it requires a focus on development of the Pacific so that the peoples of this region, this Pacific continent, the blue continent, can reach their aspirations. So we welcome US engagement, we welcome the fact that they are responding to the request that the Pacific made of Secretary Blinken in their meeting with him, their requests which go to things like their tuna fisheries, which go to making sure that the US has an economic presence in the region.
LANGDON: So you've also got the US saying they're going to send a peace envoy to the region. Do we have any idea how big that's going to be? And I imagine China is not going to respond to that too well.
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: I think we should focus on what we do, and I suspect the US administration will focus on what they do, rather than thinking about what other people do. And I think we should be focusing, and certainly that's what the Albanese Labor government is doing, we're focusing on what can Australia contribute uniquely to this region – things like access to our labour market.
LANGDON: But I think Australia is very much seen as being aligned with the US when it comes to issues in the region. Penny, wouldn’t you agree?
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: I think everyone knows we're a US ally and we work with them and with other partners for the sort of region that we all want. But just in terms of what the US is doing, I think they are responding to what was put to them by the Pacific, including, as you said, an envoy, but as importantly, the return of the Peace Corps to the region – that's effectively aid volunteers. That's the analogy. I think it's a good idea for the US to be engaged in the region and we want to work with Pacific Island nations for a peaceful, stable, prosperous region where everyone's sovereignty is respected.
LANGDON: Kiribati is not there and there is speculation, of course, that China has influenced that decision. Are you concerned that they too will sign a security deal like the Solomon Islands did?
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: I think that's a reasonable question for you to ask, Ally. What I'd say is: China's presence in the region is a fact of life. That's what the government recognises. And we'll be focused on what we can do to make sure Australia continues to stay very present in the region and we work with other countries to make sure the region remains respectful of sovereignty and that the Pacific family is responsible for its security.
On Kiribati, you're right – that has been a focus of the Forum and obviously, we would prefer those issues to have been dealt with. What I said in the Leaders' Forum yesterday is this: we are stronger together. We all know the region is navigating some pretty big challenges. Climate change, the COVID pandemic and the recovery and the strategic competition in the region. Everybody knows that we do that best together. We're stronger together.
LANGDON: I think we all agree with that. I know the Prime Minister is going to be joining you today in Suva, Fiji. Nice to see you this morning, Minister. Thank you.
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Authorised by Senator the Hon Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia.