Topics: Bipartisan delegation to the Pacific; Australia-Palau relationship; Palau’s climate leadership; Australia’s bid to co-host COP31; Palau tourism; recognition of Taiwan; Coalition’s track-record on climate.
15 December 2022

President Surangel Whipps: Good morning and welcome, Honourable Minister, Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Senator Simon Birmingham. We are extremely honoured to welcome your delegation to Palau. It would be now the second visit of a Foreign Minister in one year in Palau. There’s two things that I’ve have had seconds this year. I got to meet the Emperor of Japan twice in the month of September, so I think this signifies the strength of our relationship and we’re just excited to have you here. I know we met in Fiji and it is your second trip to Palau, so we’re definitely hoping that this continues to build on our already very strong relationship. Over the past years, many years, that we’ve been diplomatic partners, probably the symbol of strength of our relationship has been the cooperation in the maritime sector and having the Remeliik I and now the Remeliik II, they have really been an important part in helping us combat IUU and protecting our EEZ. And it’s really a symbol of, of Pacific cooperation and protecting the rule of law. Protecting freedom and democracy and the values that we share. Australia opening its embassy here in 2019, was a very welcome step and a very important step in building upon the strong relationship that we have. Having Ambassador Turner in Palau as our first Australian Ambassador to Palau has been helpful in building that strong relationship because you are now more responsive or able to address the challenges and conflicts that may arise.

Ambassador Turner was here when Typhoon Surigae hit and the first responder was Australia coming and saying ‘how can we help?’ Especially those people that were affected by damage to their homes and suffered through that typhoon. You know the challenges we face are common across the Pacific Islands. When it comes to climate change, I said at COP26 ‘you might as well bomb us’ because its constant whether it’s typhoons, droughts, the heat and sea level rise, and so you coming helps you understand the challenges that we face. But also unwelcome visitors, which having a patrol boat helps keep those people out. And, and our biggest challenge, post-COVID is really economic recovery, and how do we get back. So I think this visit just signifies the importance of the relationship and bringing that relationship to a higher level. Foreign Minister Payne was here in May to open up the ground breaking of the new fibre optic cable, which is important for diversifying our economy but also helping our education and our health sector.

Today, I think two important projects that we will be visiting, one is the solar power project, renewable energy project that is being built and it’s so important because one thing that Palau has learned is not only as important for reducing our carbon, but it’s also important for us to build our resilience against the challenges of conflict which have raised the cost of fuel and really are holding us hostage to fossil fuels. So there’s really a dual benefit by having that project go forward. The other thing is in our healthcare sector, we’ll be launching the new computer system, software Tupaia and Tamanu, which will help us in electronic medical records, and also a medical supply to make sure that we’re making sure we have those critical medications that people need every day at the hospital.

You know, but lastly, I think most important is the strength of the Pacific being together. And that togetherness I think has been on display at COP27 with Australia leading the way and saying let’s bring COP to the Pacific, but also leading the way and saying we raised our ambition from 30 per cent reduction in carbon 43 per cent by 2030, which is important for keeping the world temperature below 1.5 which is so important to Pacific islands that are going under so important for preserving our culture. You know, I have said that we shouldn’t, you know, although we’re on high ground here we have 10 islands that have their inhabitants that will disappear. And those islands have chiefs and some of them have their own language and why should they disappear because of the choices that we make? We need to work together to do all we can to make sure that we can save those islands and save that culture. You know, one of the things that we’ll talk about, we’ll share, is about the Bai House. But one of the things I always like to share is, one of the symbols that’s on the Bai House, you’ll see the surgeonfish in the middle of that Bai House. Surgeonfish are so important because young men are taught about the importance of unity, and surgeonfish they graze alone, but when there’s danger, they come together, and that’s what we need to do. We are stronger together and this is what this is all about. And you know, most importantly, part of our economic recovery is it’s important that we have tourism and so the announcement, and I had the opportunity last night to just go on Expedia and you will know that now there’s flights from Brisbane to Palau beginning February 28.

So we’re welcoming all the Australians, please it’s a 767-300 so it’s got a lot of seats, so please fill up that plane. Come and visit, we have beautiful oceans, and I understand warm oceans, because Senator Birmingham was able to swim this morning. Very warm, and our jellyfish, they’re harmless, which I know is unusual for Australia. I was down at the Great Barrier Reef and we had to put on all these blue suits because if you get stung, you could die. So that’s one difference that we have. So I want to welcome all the divers and snorkelers and come and see our culture you know, see what’s unique about Palau. But I think even more importantly it’s about connecting the north and the south. You know, this is a huge Pacific which should be one Pacific working together and having those flight, well they’re going to allow us to connect the North and South Pacific. And we’re excited about that opportunity to increase the people to people exchanges because that’s really what builds cooperation and collaboration.

And we want to thank the Government of Australia and we want to thank you for your visit, strengthening and building on that relationship that we have. So thank you. Welcome to Palau. We only hope that you can stay here longer, so we can show you more, but that means that you have to come back.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Thank you President Whipps for your really kind words. We appreciate it, deeply. And we appreciate your personal leadership and Palau’s leadership on climate, on regional unity and in terms of the bilateral relationship. So we thank you for that. I’m proud to be here on my second visit, my first as Foreign Minister. My last visit here was as part of a bipartisan delegation with Julie Bishop, the then Foreign Minister, and I can attest to the extraordinary beauty of the coral here as someone who’s scuba dived Great Barrier Reef, Malaysia including Sipadan, it’s amazing here. So to any Australians who are interested in a bit of snorkelling or scuba diving, please come this way. It’s good to be here with my counterpart Senator Simon Birmingham, who I will hand over to shortly, but I want to touch on a few things that President Whipps spoke about that firstly, climate leadership.

When I was Climate Minister, the one of the things which struck me and which moved me, was the authenticity and power of the voice of the Pacific. For the reasons you outline, President, that you are living it. At the time and unfortunately, the subsequent decade, my country was involved in a domestic political debate about climate along political, partisan lines and what struck me about visiting Palau and Vanuatu and Solomon Islands and Tuvalu, Kiribati, was that this was not a political issue for the people of the Pacific. It was an existential issue. And it is an existential issue. It’s an issue about culture and land and sea and safety and security. The number one security issue of peoples of the Pacific, as the Boe Declaration reminds us, and as you have said, in many contributions and your contribution to the Conference of the Parties where you talked about, it’s like bombing us. It’s a profoundly important thing to say to the countries of the world and as a region that has experienced great power competition and conflict, it’s even more powerful. Because you have you have known conflict and war and you have known what that is like, and now you’re living in a different type of contest and conflict with climate. So yes, we have been elected with a greater ambition on climate, thank you for your kind words on that. It’s a big job for us. We’re a very energy intensive economy, a very emissions intensive economy and the majority of our power is from coal. So what we’re seeking is not just the 43 per cent, which is important, but implied in that is to move from majority coal fired power to in excess of 80 per cent renewable in eight years. It’s a pretty big change, but it’s necessary. It’s overdue, and we think it is also not only the right thing to do, it’s also the most cost effective thing to do, as you said in our meeting today, let’s just get it done. Can do.

So thank you for your leadership on climate. We are going to be visiting, as you referenced, the Palau Solar Project site today, which the Australia Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific is supporting, the private sector-led, doesn’t add sovereign debt, which is a great thing. And it stacks up. So I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to work together on that. It’s an example of practical benefits from this relationship. I said to President Whipps, we’re not as big as the US, obviously. Australians come to this relationship and come to the Pacific though, I think with a very a real focus on how we can practically assess, what are the practical outcomes, and it’s one of our great cultural attributes, and we seek to bring it to this relationship. On regional leadership, thank you for your personal leadership, in terms of regional unity. I know you understand, Mr President, the importance of regional unity, that inclusive, robust regional structures and regional unity is a way of protecting sovereignty, of enhancing choices for countries at a time where there is contest, and there is COVID, and there is climate change. All things which are better navigated together, stronger together.

And thank you for your personal contribution, Mr President to regional unity. We appreciate it. And I think when we last met at the Pacific Islands Forum, I think the first thing you talked to me about was the flights. So I’m so pleased that in February, we are going to see the first of the weekly flights from Brisbane, which are underwritten by Australia, to leverage that private sector activity. We do it also with other parts of the Northern Pacific, our Pacific flights program. And it’s a very important program, because it’s about economic connectivity, and opportunity. But it’s also, as you say, it’s about connecting the northern and south Pacific, and in a time of importance of regional unity. That is a very important thing. So tickets, as you said, having looked on Expedia takes already on sale flights start in February, we say to Australians, please come.

So I just wanted to thank you, your Minister of State who was kind enough to meet me at the airport, and participate in the meeting today and your other ministers. Thank you for welcoming us. Thank you for your leadership on climate. We hope that the Conference of the Parties, if we are able to get that agreed, is an opportunity for the voices of the Pacific to be heard even more loudly and powerfully in the UN context. And I’ll now hand over to my colleague Simon.

Senator Birmingham: Thank you. Thank you, Minister Wong and President Whipps, thank you. You said in your remarks that we are stronger together. And the delegation that we bring, of Government and Opposition from Australia, is one of standing together as Australia in support of the friendship and the partnership we have with our Pacific Island nations and particularly with Palau. As you indicated, we have a long history, a long history of maritime cooperation, a long history of work across our region. And we stand here with some of the symbols of your culture and background beside us. But just over to the left, some of the relics in reminder of what rivalry and competition can bring when things go wrong. And our cooperation towards a peaceful, stable and prosperous Pacific is such an important one.

In recent years, we’ve been able to enhance that partnership and to take it from strength to strength, the opening of Australia’s embassy, the establishment of infrastructure financing that has supported solar projects, enhanced digital connectivity, is providing practical assistance in terms of support for healthcare, the efforts the new government is undertaking in terms of enhanced people to people connectivity. And indeed, I echo the encouragement for Australians to look to those flight opportunities and to come and support the relationship with the people of Palau to learn more about Palau and yes indeed to enjoy the beautiful environment and waters of Palau.

This is such a critical partnership. Can I echo Minister Wong’s thanks to you for your leadership and that of your government, in regional fora in the work you do in Micronesia, across the Pacific Islands, and globally, The strong voice that you bring to important regional matters and to global challenges such as climate change, they are messages that we must hear, we must heed. And we must continue to learn from you and to act upon with you. Thank you once again for for your hospitality, and your friendship and partnership. It’s one that we look forward to furthering in a bipartisan way as strongly as we can in the future.

Journalist: I’m wondering, we have seen China switch or take diplomatic recognition with Solomon Islands and Kiribati. I’m wondering if you could rate the chances of Palau making a similar change.

President Whipps: I think Palau has been very consistent, that we are friends to all and enemies to none. Of course, like every country in the world, when it comes to trade, everybody trades with China. Tourism, we get tourism from China. However, what we’ve told China is that, as friends, you shouldn’t tell your friends who their friends can be. And so we’ve, you know, we’ve made a very clear statement that we have diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, Taiwan. And if you want to be our friend, they’re our friend also. But you’re not going to tell us we can’t be their friend, which is what they want to tell us to do. And that’s why they say, you know, we can give you all the tourist you want, just switch, and we say, that’s okay. And that’s what they’ve done.

They’ve turned off the faucet, play games with us. But you know, I don’t think that’s the way you treat true friendship and true partnership. And I think Palau has seen that over the years. And there’s, like Australia and the United States, Taiwan, has been a strong ally and partner. And we feel that that relationship is important to continue to maintain. And nobody else should tell us that we should dissolve that relationship.

Journalist: Just a bit on that, the change’s in China’s policy on Palau as a tourist destination must have really affected, I guess, your country drastically. How much of an impact has it had? And would you say that was economic coercion? And is that why you’re now looking at countries like Australia to bring tourists here?

President Whipps: Well, just to give you an example, Palau at one point was graduated, and became a medium income country. And that was when the number of Chinese tourists went through the roof in Palau. This was back in 2015-2016. By the time we reach 2019, we’re almost you know, with our GDP have dropped and with COVID, we’re back down into low income country status. So what’s interesting is, that’s just the reality that we live in. But I think what we did see is that, with that large influx of tourists, there was also consequences with it. And I’ll give you an example. Their respect for the environment is not quite the same as the rest of us. And their ferocious, ferocious appetite, so we had, unfortunately, because of, of that, treasured clams that are, you know, giant clams that are hundreds of years old, because of that pressure to get seafood and to eat the beautiful parrot fish, they were poached, during that time, by fishermen because it was fast money.

So one thing that we’ve learned is we need to diversify the tourism base that we have. We need to bring people that share the same values about our environment and protecting it and have respect for it. And so there’s things that we’ve learned that we need to build a more resilient, more diverse tourism sector and, and we hope Australia will play a big part in that. We’re only eight hours away. So hopefully that will be an opportunity to have many visitors come from Australia. I know you’re already flooding the Cook Islands in Fiji, just add Palau to your bucket list.

Journalist: Mr President and Minister, you’ve spoken both about climate change. At the recent COP talks, there was concern raised by some of Taiwan’s other diplomatic allies that it was not allowed to participate in the COP talks, we saw during the pandemic, Taiwan was not allowed to participate in World Health Organization talks. And we’re seeing also too, debate about whether Taiwan should be allowed to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement that Australia is a party to. For both of you, what is your views on Taiwan’s participation in these sorts of international bodies, treaties, forums, things like that?

President Whipps: Well, I’ve said it at the UN, and I’ve said it at COP, the 23 million people that live in Taiwan need a voice, they should be allowed to participate in the W.H.O, they should be allowed to participate at UNFCC. I mean, these are, these are issues that impact all of us, and 23 million people in a country of that size should not be denied or allowed to participate. So that’s Palau’s view.

Foreign Minister: Look, every country makes its own sovereign decisions about recognition and so forth. And I think, President Whipps answered the previous question very clearly on that front. In relation to Taiwan, obviously, the bipartisan position we have is a One China policy. But what that means is we will continue our unofficial people to people, economic, relationships and engagement with Taiwan. And I make this observation. And obviously, these matters have to be worked through in W.H.O, or through the Conference of the Parties or whatever fora, you’re talking about problems here which require the whole world to resolve them. So whether it’s COVID, or climate, we need everybody to be part of the solution. So we want to work through how that can occur in those forums. But I think the reality is they are issues that require the whole of the world to tackle them.

Journalist: [inaudible] Economists predict the recovery will take longer than expected. So what can Australia do to help islands in the Pacific and their economies recover?

Foreign Minister: Look it’s a very good question. And you’re right. So I think we’ve seen one of the things we’ve seen through COVID is the effect on development, economic development and prosperity in many parts of the world. And we’ve seen that effect far greater in countries with narrower economic bases. So whether they’re parts of Southeast Asia and parts of the Pacific, including Palau, that the challenge for countries which don’t have very large, diversified economies is far greater. And this scarring effect has been being greater. Now we are as, as I’ve joked, before, you know, we’re not a market the size of the US. But what the Australian Government can do is to do what we’re doing, which is to support flights, so connectivity to try and open up those channels, Air New Guinea will commence weekly services from the end of next month. Sorry, end of February. And we are underwriting the costs of that through the Pacific flight program in the initial establishment phase, and that program has in fact supported, I think, in excess of 400 flights in the Pacific since December 2020. So it was originally to deal with COVID but we are now extending it to try and support the private sector recovery. So it’s something small we can do.

Journalist: Senator, Australia has expressed its intention to pay for COP31. Residents have expressed very strong support Australia’s intention, but there are those that feel that Australia should not be hosting of its record on climate change. So what is this Government doing to change that?

Foreign Minister: Thank you very much for the question. And firstly, can I thank again, President Whipps and Palau for their positive response to this and can I talk to you about our motivation? Our motivation for seeking to host this is because we want more ambition on climate, domestically and internationally. Our motivation for hosting this is because we believe that the voices of the Pacific and the small island developing states internationally, but the voices of Pacific, are powerful and should be heard. Our motivation for hosting this is because we want to keep the world on track, to stay below 1.5. And to make sure that the Paris and Glasgow commitments are met. That is our motivation. And, of course, there are things in the past, I would have wished had been different.

I was at Copenhagen where I worked with AOSIS, and the Pacific Island countries, and we worked very hard to try and get a deal. And some of the people who are with me today were officials who are working very hard to get an agreement. We got a bit and it was, you know, probably the architecture for the Paris Agreement, but not what the world needed. So we come to this with that motivation. And we accept we have to do more, and I’ve been honest about that. But I said to my friends in the Marshall Islands when I was there, I said, you know, our economy and the global economy, it’s like a big boat. It’s sailing in one direction with a very emissions intensive economy. And you know, when you push the rudder, it takes a little while doesn’t it for the boat to steer? Well, we’re pushing the rudder. So we ask for your I suppose patience in recognising we have pushed the rudder and it will take a while for the boat to turn.

Journalist: Minister Wong, this morning. Fiji’s main opposition leader, Sitiveni Rabuka, has said his party has no faith in the election count that’s underway. He will complain to Fiji’s election office and petition the country’s President on the matter. What’s your response, are you concerned?

Foreign Minister: Look, I’m not going to comment on the domestic politics of Fiji. But I would say this, you know, we sent, at Fiji’s request, representatives from our parliament, to co lead the multinational observer group, I think we co-led with India and Indonesia. It appears to have been conducted, and I can only speak from here, peacefully in an orderly manner. We continue to support democracy and elections and an appropriate election process in Fiji and we’re very pleased that the multinational observer group was able to participate.

Journalist: Can I ask you a quick question Senator Birmingham? Sorry to ambush you at this point. Just on the issue of climate change. I’m just wondering, you know, we’re on the fourth day of our Pacific trip. Just wondering if you could sort of reflect on the Coalition’s climate policy over the years and how that affected Australia’s relations with the region and how do you see change sort of opening the doors to further engagement?

Senator Birmingham: Thanks, Ben. And, and I don’t want to get into domestic politics but I will certainly you know touch on the issues you raised there. We’ve taken important steps over the years. We have, obviously most recently taken the steps towards making a firm commitment, as was taken to Glasgow for net zero by 2050. In terms of the targets that had been set for 2030, we put Australia on track not just to meet those targets, but to exceed those targets, as indeed Australia had met and exceeded its Kyoto One and Kyoto Two commitment period targets as well. Frankly, when you’re clearly on track to exceed targets, it makes sense to raise and to elevate those targets. And that probably should have occurred at an earlier stage.

What’s clear to me from the few days that I’ve had from engagement with Pacific leaders, like President Whipps, is that it is critical for us to listen carefully and attentively to our Pacific partners, and not just to listen, but to ensure that we act in concert with them. We do so in ways where we also show the maturity of explaining the challenges that Australia has, the change that is underway in Australia, we have seen record levels of investment in renewable energy in Australia. Yet at times the domestic element of political debate perhaps hasn’t enabled us to convey that message as clearly as would have been ideal for all of our relations. And so ensuring that we have the types of dialogue that we’ve had through these last few days is important.

And when it comes to domestic politics, ensuring that the voices that we hear from the Pacific are heard And then we say the same things at home as we say here is equally critical in that regard. And that means, as I say, explaining the difficulties and the challenges when here, but also taking the difficult decisions when at home. And I want to make sure for my part, as Shadow Foreign Minister and I said, I think on our first day here, when you lose elections, it’s important to listen, to understand the reasons why you lost and so of course, that’s about listening to the Australian electorate. But as Shadow Foreign Minister, it’s also about listening to all of our partners who we value in the region and globally to understand how we can most effectively shape policy to work with them as even deeper, stronger partners in the future.

Foreign Minister: Thank you everyone.