Laura Jayes: Marise Payne, we see Scott Morrison in Solomon Islands today, is this part of a concerted effort to reengage with the Pacific?
Minister Payne: Well I think from the announcement of the Pacific Step Up, some time ago now, but certainly Prime Minister Morrison’s very, very emphatic reinforcement of the importance of our engagement with our neighbours, with our Pacific family – this is a logical progression from that. The Prime Minister and new Minister for the Pacific and International Development are in the Solomons today, I’m also going to Fiji this afternoon. That’s an opportunity for me to develop the Vuvale Partnership that Prime Minister Bainimarama and Prime Minister Morrison agreed just in January, and to really reinforce that Australia-Fiji engagement as well.
Kieran Gilbert: Prime Minister Bainimarama sent a very warm statement of his friendship with Scott Morrison, they obviously have got a nice rapport, but the key issue he referred to in that statement as you would’ve read was about climate change. Do you recognise that for them its seen as an existential threat, not just for Fiji but Solomons, right across the Pacific? That’s their number one security priority isn’t it?
Minister Payne: Kieran, we’re very focused on working with all of our Pacific partners on the challenges they face, including in relation to climate. We signed onto the Boe Declaration at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) last year which has, as its first security challenge, climate. So in our development assistance, in our investment of over $300 million across the Pacific, in climate resilience, we focus on that. The Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP) will also have through its focus on infrastructure, in telecoms, in transport and in a number of other areas, an integrated climate focus too. So, that is very much front of mind in all of our discussions and I’m sure that it’ll be raised with me by Prime Minister Bainimarama or by my counterpart Minister Seruiratu today.
Laura Jayes: It’s clear that Pacific leaders don’t think Australia, under your government, is doing enough. Can you offer them anything else to what the current platform is or will it remain the same?
Minister Payne: We are absolutely committed to meeting our targets under the Paris Agreement and that is something which the Prime Minister and I, and other Ministers have reinforced in recent months. Absolutely committed to that. Also committed to working very closely with those partners across the Pacific in the ways that I’ve indicated. When we visit those communities, no matter where we are and what we are doing, we are responsive to their concerns and the issues they raise with us. I know that will be the case with the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Sogavare in the Solomons today, and certainly, when I meet my counterparts and Prime Minister Bainimarama in Fiji today and tomorrow.
Kieran Gilbert: The infrastructure spending is going to come, this commitment in the Solomons, from the aid budget. Is it a shame that spending in one part needs to be taken from say spending on health or education, which obviously is very much needed in that part of the world as well?
Minister Payne: That’s absolutely right Kieran, we are working closely with the countries across the Pacific to determine what their priorities are, what they identify as their priorities. Of course, they traverse a number of policy areas: infrastructure being one, health and education that you have also mentioned. But I do think it is very important that we are responsive to the priorities that they identify with us where we are able to be so. That is the direction that the Prime Minister has taken today – working with the Solomon Islands Government on issues, issues which they have identified to us, they would like support on. Similarly, I’ve seen that right around the Pacific when I’ve been visiting in the last couple of years. I’ve been in New Caledonia, I’ve been in Tonga, I’ve been in the Solomons myself, I’ve been in Fiji myself, and of course multiple times in Papua New Guinea. And what has become evident to me, to us, is the importance of working with the priorities that those countries are setting for themselves and supporting where Australia is able to do so.
Laura Jayes: Why is Australia so interested in the Pacific? Does it come, this reengagement it would seem, because of China’s influence? The offer of almost interest-free loans to pay for some of these big infrastructure projects. Do you want to see Australia be more of a support in this area than China is?
Minister Payne: I think that would be a very narrow interpretation to be frank, because the Prime Minister and other Ministers, including myself in my previous role and currently, have been very clear about the importance of our relationships across this region. This is our region, our focus is on a secure, prosperous and stable Indo-Pacific. It’s where we live, it’s where we work, it’s where we make a contribution with our partners and the infrastructure partnership with Japan and the United States and Australia is a really good example of that. So where opportunities exist for us to reinforce that, to work with members of our Pacific family, whether it’s in developing the Black Rock peacekeeping centre in Fiji which I will also see again this week, and I visited that before. Whether it is the focus on telecommunications infrastructure in Solomon Islands, which I know the PM will see with PM Sogavare this week. They are key focusses of infrastructure; key focusses of support that enable us to work with those countries across the region as they grow and as they develop. And the region is changing significantly. The Asian Development Bank estimates an almost $46 billion requirement for infrastructure support between now and 2030. And where we can make a good contribution, a constructive contribution, then Australia is more than willing and able to do so, and we are working closely with countries on that.
Kieran Gilbert: Minister, General Wei of the PLA, at the weekend defence summit in Singapore, the Shangri-la Dialogue, he said it would be very dangerous for the US and others to underestimate the PLA resolve. This was specifically on Taiwan, he said this comes, of course, at a time when the Trump Administration is engaging more with Taiwan. But basically he said they want peaceful reunification but they make no promise to renounce the use of force. What do you say to his language at the weekend, which was very forceful on Taiwan, but also elsewhere when discussing the South China Sea and other matters?
Minister Payne: Australia has been absolutely clear in terms of our focus on a peaceful, prosperous, secure and stable Indo-Pacific and we encourage all partners, all allies, all counterparts to make contributions that add to those key elements. It is a very, very important part of the world, it’s a world which has seen enormous growth in recent years. Growth and strength from the economic power of China. Growth and strength from countries within the region as they lift people out of poverty and they start to participate in a stronger context in the economic world. All of those things have changed the region in which we work and live, but overwhelmingly in a positive way. What we endeavour to do, as a strong contributor in the region is to reinforce the focus on security, on stability, on prosperity, in everything we do, and encourage others to do the same.
Laura Jayes: Is managing this relationship with China, would you identify that as your biggest challenge, or the biggest focus, over the next three years? Or is it something else?
Minister Payne: I would reinforce what I’ve just said really, to be frank. The stable, prosperous, open Indo-Pacific is Australia’s primary focus. But deepening our alliances, our strategic partnerships is integral to that. Working with our friends and our family in the Pacific is part of that, watching and engaging with India as it grows, in a very, very powerful way – we’ve seen the re-election of PM Modi, we have a template which is set out through our India Economic Strategy, for our engagement in the Indo part of the Indo Pacific. We work very, very hard within the various fora setup through regional architecture – whether it’s the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) or ASEAN and focus on ASEAN centrality. To make sure that we are consistently conveying the message that what is very, very important for this region of the world is a peaceful, stable and prosperous environment. I think Australia makes a constructive contribution to that and we encourage others to do the same.
Kieran Gilbert: Minister, in relation to General Wei as well, he’s made the comments defending the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the massacre, 30 years ago this year. It’s a reminder, isn’t it, of how different that governing regime is to what we are and I guess the complexity of having to try and balance that with our biggest trading partner, in terms of our relationship with Beijing?
Minister Payne: There’s no question that we are very different countries, no question that we have walked very different paths to the 21st century, but importantly, we have a relationship between Australia and China that is founded in mutual respect, that is founded in shared interests…
Kieran Gilbert: …What do you think of the Tiananmen comments?
Minister Payne: …Well we stand with the international community in recognising the tragic deaths that occurred in Tiananmen Square in 1989. I understand the General to be expressing the official position of the Chinese Government, but Australia as we well recall, has had long engagement with the outcomes of Tiananmen Square.
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