TV Interview with David Speers - ABC Insiders - 12/11/2023

12 November 2023



Subjects: The Australia –Tuvalu Falepili Union; Prime Minister and Foreign Minister’s visit to China; Australia’s relationship with China; CPTPP accession; Hamas-Israel conflict; Caulfield protest; High Court ruling on indefinite immigration detention.

DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Penny Wong, welcome to the program.

PENNY WONG, FOREIGN MINISTER: Good to be with you.

SPEERS: So is this deal with Tuvalu aimed at keeping China at bay in the Pacific?

FOREIGN MINISTER: This agreement with Tuvalu is the most important step any Australian Government has taken in the Pacific since the independence of Papua New Guinea, so I think we should understand what it means, and understand also the foresight of the Government of Tuvalu in seeking it. As Prime Minister Natano said, you know, this is giant leap forward in our joint mission to assure security, prosperity, and stability in the region.

What this agreement is about is Australia and Tuvalu, that's what it's about, and it's about Australia saying to the region, and to Tuvalu, we are a genuine, reliable partner, and when we say we're part of the Pacific family, we mean it.

SPEERS: But in all honesty, after all the alarm about the Solomon Islands doing a deal, a security deal with China, can you say this one with Tuvalu has nothing to do with China?

FOREIGN MINISTER: We recognise we live in a more contested region, and we have to work harder to be a partner of choice, we know that. And unlike the previous government, we have been doing the work and we will do the work to work with Pacific Islands Forum members to assure Australia's presence as a member of the family and as a partner of choice.

SPEERS: And how will it work in practice, if Tuvalu wanted to access finance from China for a port or a power station, would it need Australia's approval?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Tuvalu retains its sovereignty, but the agreement sets out three areas of cooperation, climate change, human mobility, or migration with dignity and security, and in relation to security we've made a commitment as Australia that we will come to their assistance in the context of a pandemic or humanitarian disaster or a military aggression, and we've also agreed that any engagement in the security sector with another party would be something we would mutually agree, so the terms of the agreement are quite clear on those matters.

SPEERS: And that includes ports, power stations – Australia would have to run the ruler over it?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, it depends what is defined as being in the security sector.

SPEERS: That's what I'm asking.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Yes, but we will work through that with them, but I think we're clear that the security sector is something we want mutual agreement on, and that is something that the agreement does provide for.

SPEERS: So those details haven't been settled with Tuvalu?

FOREIGN MINISTER: No, which details?

SPEERS: Whether it includes –

FOREIGN MINISTER: What's in the security sector?

SPEERS: Yes, whether it includes ports and power stations and –

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, in the abstract, we talk about, the agreement goes to various infrastructure, but obviously this is a genuine desire to see close security cooperation, close cooperation when it comes to migration and close cooperation on climate.

SPEERS: And are you hoping other Pacific nations, like Kiribati or Nauru might take up a similar deal with Australia?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, that's a matter for those nations, but I think what this does signal is how we are prepared to approach our membership of the Pacific family.

SPEERS: So the offer is there from Australia?

FOREIGN MINISTER: I think what it says is we're prepared to be a real partner of choice, an engaged partner, but obviously it's up to those countries, just as it was Tuvalu's choice to make, to approach Australia for such an agreement.

SPEERS: Let's turn to China. You were in Beijing. You were there in the meetings the Prime Minister held with President Xi and Premier Li. It all looked very welcoming, very friendly. Was the South China Sea raised?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, we have made clear our position on the South China Sea, and if I can come back to what I think your panel was talking about before, this is a relationship where we seek more stability and so does China. A stable relationship doesn't mean we're going to agree on everything. What it means is that we can continue to grow the relationship in a way that's consistent with our national interests, that requires we wisely navigate our differences.

We've been clear with China, there are things on which we will not agree, whether they be human rights or behaviours in the South China Sea where we do not want to see destabilising actions, we do not want to see international law, that is the Law of the Sea, undermined in any way. That is our private discussion, that is also our public discussion.

SPEERS: Well, just further to that, the Prime Minister and President Biden in Washington in their joint statement –


SPEERS: A couple of weeks ago did express real concern about what China's doing in relation to the Philippines, some of its aggression in the South China Sea.


SPEERS: So was that raised President Xi?

FOREIGN MINISTER: We discussed, there was a discussion about international law, which is obviously the Law of the Sea, but I think China is very clear, including from my discussions with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and the position we have put in all the regional forums where we have attended – including at my level – such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN related forums, we're very clear about our support for the Philippines and for international law. So, I don't think it's – and I'm glad you referenced both the Prime Minister’s joint statement as well as our desire to do joint patrols or joint sails with the Philippines.

SPEERS: China and Australia, after the meeting, reaffirmed their support for the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two countries. Can you just clear this up for viewers, are we strategic partners with China or strategic competitors?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Now come on, David, you're better than that. You know that a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership was signed by, I think it was Tony Abbott, so this is a diplomatic term for a relationship, and you have a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship than to ask me a question like that.

We know that there are areas where we can cooperate, and we should, we want to. There are areas we disagree, and we should do so, clearly and consistently and calmly, and we should continue to engage, because China is a consequential country in our region, so it matters for Australia's security, whether it's its economic security or national security more broadly, for us to engage. What is the alternative?

SPEERS: I get all that, I get all that. And pardon my ignorance, but when I read that joint statement, it says, "we reaffirm our support for the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership," I'm a little unclear what that means.

FOREIGN MINISTER: It's a reference to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that Tony Abbott signed.

SPEERS: And so we are strategic partners?

FOREIGN MINISTER: We, Tony Abbott signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China, it's a diplomatic arrangement. I'm not sure the point you're making.

SPEERS: Well, I'm just wondering, does it still exist?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Yes, it's a legal arrangement.

SPEERS: And what does it mean?

FOREIGN MINISTER: It means we are maybe you should get Tony Abbott, I'm –

SPEERS: No, no.

FOREIGN MINISTER: We are – no, we are – I'm trying to understand whether you're talking about form or – the diplomatic form is a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. I think what you're actually asking is how do we manage the fact that at times we have very different strategic interests. And we do so by continuing to press our strategic interest. I mean, Australia wants to assure our own sovereignty.


FOREIGN MINISTER: Just as China does. How do we do that? We do that in the bilateral relationship, we do that with our Alliance for the United States, we do that in the Quad, we do that in our engagement with Southeast Asia, and we do that by making clear we want a balance in the region where no country, where all countries' sovereignty is protected, where the rule of law is protected. We do that by being very clear about our willingness, whether through the Quad, through AUKUS, to demonstrate both assurance, but also strategic deterrence.

SPEERS: On the CPTPP, the regional trade pact, I'm wondering whether Australia's going to support Taiwan's application to join. There are some talks in San Francisco later this week on this. What's Australia's position?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, our position on all requests for accession is very clear. One is, the CPTPP has very high standards, and we want to ensure – this is the second point – that any country that seeks to join, has a demonstrated track record of meeting their trade obligations, and the third point is that any application must be by consensus.

SPEERS: So, what will Australia's position be around that table in San Francisco?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, my position, our position will be as I've just articulated.

SPEERS: Why wouldn't we support Taiwan though? Is there any reason why we wouldn't?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, David, I've explained to you our position, the principles we will be applying and working with other partners.

SPEERS: Okay, but I'm a little – is there any reason we wouldn't support Taiwan?

FOREIGN MINISTER: You're not confused at all – you just want me to answer a different question. I've told you the principles we'll apply.

SPEERS: I heard the principles, I'm just wondering whether there's a reason we wouldn't support Taiwan.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I have given you the way we will approach it, and that's how we'll approach it.

SPEERS: Okay. Let's turn to the Israel Gaza war. Look, you called for restraint at the start of this conflict. Do you think Israel is showing restraint?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, I am deeply concerned by the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza as are so many in the world, and by the loss of life, and I'm deeply concerned, as others are, about the sort of destruction we are seeing.

What I would say is this: we called for humanitarian pauses as a necessary first step. I've seen the comments of President Macron overnight. What I would say is we all want to take the next steps towards a ceasefire, but it cannot be one sided. Hamas still holds hostages, Hamas is still attacking Israel.

I would also continue to say, as you pointed out, I called for restraint in my very first response and was criticised by Peter Dutton. How Israel defends itself matters, and when we affirm Israel's right to defend itself what we are also saying is Israel must comply and observe international humanitarian law.

Now we know Hamas is a terrorist organisation, it's demonstrated that it has no respect for international law, but Australia is a democracy and so too is Israel, and the standards that we seek and accept are higher, and international humanitarian law is very clear about the principles that need to be applied by Israel. They are distinction, they are precaution, and they are proportionality.

SPEERS: So just on the ceasefire argument, as you mentioned, the French President Emmanuel Macron has said that he is calling for a ceasefire. You just said you would like to see the steps taken towards a ceasefire. Can I just invite you to tease out what sort of steps are you looking for?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, we need steps towards a ceasefire because we know that Hamas – it cannot be one sided – we know that Hamas is still holding hostages and we know that a ceasefire must be agreed between the parties.

But we can also say that Israel should do everything it can to observe international humanitarian law. We have seen a harrowing number of civilians, including children, killed. This has to end. And we are particularly concerned with what is happening with medical facilities.

SPEERS: Do you think it is respecting that international law you just mentioned?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I would make this point in relation to hospitals and medical facilities, that international humanitarian law does require the protection of hospitals, of patients and of medical staff. And we do call on Israel to cease the attacking of hospitals.

We understand the argument that Hamas has burrowed into civilian infrastructure, but you know, I think the international community, looking at what is occurring at hospitals, would say to Israel, these are facilities protected under international law and we want you to do so.

SPEERS: Israel says that's where Gaza, Hamas is hiding in Gaza, in these hospitals.

FOREIGN MINISTER: And there is no doubt that the terrorist organisation, Hamas, which is responsible for the horrific attacks of October 7th, which is what has triggered this conflict, they do burrow in civilian infrastructure, we understand that. But that does not obviate the requirement to observe international law, and I think the fact is many friends of Israel around the world and in Australia would be saying, you know, we want civilians, hospitals to be protected, and we would urge Israel to do so.

SPEERS: Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Israel will maintain, in his words, "overall security responsibility in Gaza once it removes Hamas from power." What do you think about that?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, I think if what this shows – what this conflict shows – apart from, you know, the obvious fact that Hamas is a terrorist organisation dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel, what it shows is that there is no just and enduring peace without a political process towards a two state solution, and that two state solution, a just and enduring peace, Palestinians and Israelis living within internationally recognised borders, is the only pathway for security both for Israel and for Palestinians. I think that is what is so clearly demonstrated by what we are seeing today.

SPEERS: Look, tensions in Australia are running high over this, as they are in other parts of the world. We saw pro Palestinian protesters stage a rally on Friday night near a synagogue in Melbourne's Caulfield, Jewish worshippers in the middle of prayer had to be evacuated by police. People have a right to protest. But what did you make of this?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, I think a protest near a synagogue was not the right thing to do, and I think the organisers know that, you know, which is why they have apologised. I want to say this, all Australians, including, you know, our Jewish community, have a right to be safe and to feel safe, and no one in this country should be fearful because of who they are or their faith.

What I would say more broadly, David, is this, I understand, we all understand how distressing these events are. There are people who have lost family, people who have lost friends, people who feel deeply about these issues, these are traumatic images, the loss of life.

We must all work to ensure that distress does not turn into hate and anger. We cannot allow this conflict to divide us. We have to remember each other's humanity, we have to remember that we are all Australian, and that this is a country that people want to come to because we are respectful and we are accepting, and we don't believe in division and hate.

So I would say to all Australians, and particularly to community members, your distress is, we understand the distress, but let us not let that distress turn to anger and hate in a way that divides us, and that is too much, we are seeing too much of that.

SPEERS: Look, just a final one, away from all of that, Minister, the High Court's ruling saying that indefinite detention is unlawful. About 92 people are having to be released, some of them have been already, including a man facing the death penalty in Malaysia for a notorious murder. Is the community being put at risk by this?

FOREIGN MINISTER: First, I want to say our first priority in approaching this decision, is to assure community safety. So anyone who is released will be released on visas with strict conditions, and we are ensuring that the Australian Federal Police and Border Force are working closely with state and territory police to support community safety.

The second point I'd make is just to emphasise, this is not the Government's choice, this is a decision of the High Court of Australia, which any government is bound to follow.

SPEERS: All right. And those steps, I assume, are still being worked out, are they, in terms of the visa arrangements, the controls that they'll be under?

FOREIGN MINISTER: No, no, as people are being released, visa conditions are being applied to bridging visas for those people and we will continue to work through the judgment when it is handed down and the implications of the decision, but I make the point, people are being released with conditions, and we will ensure that law enforcement authorities, federal and state, work together.

DAVID SPEERS: All right. Foreign Minister Penny Wong, thanks for joining us this morning.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Good to speak with you.


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Authorised by Senator the Hon Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia.