Topics: Bilateral security agreement between Australia and Vanuatu; launch of Guardian class patrol vessels; security in the Pacific; death of Constables Rachel McCrow and Matthew Arnold.
Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Look, it’s really great to be here with the bipartisan delegation from Australia, and I want to make some comments about what we’ve seen today and the various announcements that have been made. I want to emphasise that the relationship between Australia and Vanuatu is based on mutual respect, a partnership of equals, and we saw a symbol of that today as the Prime Minister and the bipartisan delegation planted mangroves together. Our history is rooted in 40 years of cooperation between our security forces. Our men and women have served together through the hardest times including disaster relief and delivering humanitarian assistance, and they have worked for something for the future – training, infrastructure, maritime security. And today we have been pleased to formalise this partnership with the signing of a bilateral security agreement. As Prime Minister Kalsakau said, it’s the embodiment of our relationship, a relationship that has been on foot for over 40 years and will continue, and as two nations committed to democracy, accountability and transparency, we will ensure that the agreement is made publicly available.
There’s probably no greater cooperation – demonstration of our cooperation than what you see behind us – the wharf and the boats, previously gifted and the one, Mataweli, handed over today. We believe security is a shared responsibility. It’s a regional responsibility and we all have a responsibility to ensure that our sovereign decisions enhance the security of all members of the Blue Pacific, and we’re deeply proud to be the Vanuatu principal security partner of choice.
I’ll hand over to Senator Birmingham shortly and then we’ll take questions, but before we do that, can I just express on behalf of all of us, and I’m sure everybody here, our horror and our shock at the tragic deaths of two police officers in Australia overnight. So to the family and friends of Rachel McCrow – Constable Rachel McCrow and Constable Matthew Arnold, we extend our sympathies. We extend our deepest condolences and our shock and horror that something like this can happen in Australia, and it was a very, very sad thing to wake up to this morning.
I might hand over to Senator Birmingham to make some comments and then we’ll take some questions.
Simon Birmingham, Shadow Foreign Minister: Thank you, Penny, and at the outset, can I echo those remarks on behalf of the Coalition and all the delegation in relation to the tragic loss that occurred in Queensland. We honour the lives of those police officers who have lost their lives and we salute their service. We do so on a day where we have stood alongside the Police Service of Vanuatu and with them we know that police services right around the world put their lives on the line day in day out for the peace and security of their nations and their peoples, and we pay tribute to all those who serve.
Can I warmly welcome and celebrate the signing today of the agreement, signed by Prime Minister Kalsakau on behalf of Vanuatu and Minister Wong on behalf of Australia. This is an agreement that has been in the making since it was announced in 2018, just as the wharf behind us has been in the making since it was announced in 2021. The Guardian class patrol vessels have been in the making over a number of years and continue to be produced to support our Pacific Island nations and partners.
In a challenging and contested world, Australia and Vanuatu are at our strongest when we stand together and when we work together, and the signing of this partnership and the delivery of these tangible results of our cooperation and partnership are a demonstration of how effectively we are standing together as nations.
We stand together as nations at the forefront of delivering as the Pacific Island Forum members have made clear on Pacific‑led solutions to security and stability in the Pacific, and that is something that we are all deeply committed to continuing to do and to pursue, and is a core part of the bilateral visit that we are undertaking today.
I look forward to seeing many more such deliverables over the years to come as governments in Australia, whatever their composition – Labor, Liberal or National – make sure that we build upon the partnerships that are effectively underpinning relations in our region. Thank you.
Foreign Minister: Which Senator? This Senator or that Senator? No, no; I don’t mind. I was genuinely saying do you want him or me?
Journalist: Minister, the agreement signed today, what does it actually cover? Will it see things like, for instance, more Australian Naval warships visit Vanuatu here and does it lock China out of it trying to build a similar [indistinct] in the future?
Foreign Minister: Look, I thought that Prime Minister Kalsakau expressed it best when he talked about this being the embodiment of our partnership. So, I think there are really three components which can be understood. One, it formalises a security dialogue. That’s a good thing. As the world is more complex and more challenging to navigate, having formal structures for us to be able to have that dialogue matters. Secondly, and you might have understood that from the way – the list of issues that I referenced when we had the event earlier, it looks to a broad base for security, which is consistent with the Boe Declaration – a recognition that security is not a narrow concept but a broad concept, and so it looks to cooperation in all those areas. And, thirdly, really it provides an operational framework for us to enable to cooperate and practice.
Journalist: Have we beaten China in this?
Foreign Minister: Look, I think about it in these terms: we have been under governments of both political persuasion, friends, partners with Vanuatu for in excess of four decades, and you see some of that behind us and you see it in – you hear it in how people speak about it. So, this is something that we will continue to do and it reflects our belief that security is a regional responsibility and it is a responsibility of the Pacific family, that principle, of course, being the principle that the leaders again articulated at the Pacific Island Forum in July.
Journalist: Minister, Australia is seeking to do a security deal with Papua New Guinea. You’ve struck this agreement with Vanuatu. Are you negotiating similar agreements elsewhere in the Pacific; and, if so, how many?
Foreign Minister: We are engaging with Pacific partners in a manner that is consistent with the principle that I’ve outlined, and that principle is security is a regional responsibility and the responsibility of the Pacific family. But I want to emphasise this because it matters a great deal: decisions about how a country wishes to engage with us, what level of cooperation, what priorities that country articulates are questions, are issues for that sovereign nation and we, as Australia, come to that discussion with respect, mutual respect. We come to it with a recognition that we are equal partners and we come to listen, so that is how we will deal with these issues and this is a consequence, or this is a result of that approach.
Journalist: Minister, Australia was concerned about China doing these deals in the Pacific. Is this Australian foreign influence at play in this region?
Foreign Minister: This is Australia – this is the embodiment of what Australia and Vanuatu do, which is we work together to secure our future. That’s what this is.
Journalist: Just ask a question to Minister Conroy. Can I ask a question? We’ve got a Guardian class patrol boat. Is it working and are you happy with the program overall?
Pat Conroy: The Guardian class patrol boats are an essential asset for the Pacific nations that use them. They are successor to the Pacific patrol boats that we provided in the 1980s and 1909s, and they do very important security work. There are a number of challenges with them. Most of the problems occurred in the last few years and we are working to fix them. I was at Henderson shipyards about a month ago where I met with the shipbuilder and I reminded them that it’s not just their reputation on the line, it is the reputation of Australia, and progress is being made. There are a number of issues, some have been going on for about three years, and the technical solutions are being trialled right now, and I think the first three of the technical solutions are being rolled out and are being proven to work. The fourth one will be – we are actually doing trials right now in Cairns to resolve the final outstanding issue.
I’d make a couple of points. One, this $2.1 billion maritime security program, which isn’t just the boats, it’s the wharf and the training and everything that goes with it, is an essential element of a Pacific response to the security challenges of Pacific countries working together to solve security gaps. And the other thing I would say is that Australia, when we provide equipment, when we support nations around the world, and if something goes wrong – and occasionally things will break down; it is the nature of complex equipment – we own the problem. We own it and we commit to fixing it. And that’s what Australia and that’s what Austal is doing in partnership with the Department of Defence.
So we’ve had really good conversations with the government of Vanuatu and they love the asset and obviously the want to use it to the fullest extent possible and I am working very hard with the department and the company involved to fix that.
Journalist: So are they able to operate now or are their operations restricted because there are issues with fumes and so forth, isn’t there?
Conroy: Yes, so we’ve provided advice to Pacific nations on how to operate them. But, ultimately, it’s up to each nation. These are sovereign assets of each nation so they ultimately decide how to resolve them. Some of the issues are ones which just have tiny – well, not tiny, have a small impact on how you operate them. One is a reduction in speed of about three knots so you can still use them perfectly, but you just have to use three knots. Another one, you can’t enter a compartment that’s not designed to be entered while at sea – just don’t enter it at sea. So we are working through the issues. But, as I said before, this is a really important project. It’s critical to Pacific nations. They really love the asset. It’s a huge step‑up from the Pacific class patrol boat and we are committed to resolving all those issues.
Journalist: Can I ask about the Fiji elections? They go to the polls tomorrow. It’s a tight race, but there’s been some commentators who have raised risk of it being unrest. Do you have any of those concerns?
Foreign Minister: I’m really not going to comment on the Fiji election at this point. We can have a discussion afterwards.
Conroy: Is there any local questions?
Foreign Minister: Okay.
Journalist: Aware that the Australian Government has said that when Takuare was down, they said that they were going to help with surveilling the countries through helicopters but now that we have this new one here [RVS Mataweli] does that mean the surveillance scale from the Australian Government will be going down or is it still the same?
Foreign Minister: No, I think we want both capabilities operating. Do you want to say anything?
Conroy: Foreign Minister Wong is absolutely right and what we’ve said to the governments of the Pacific that have been impacted by it, if there are any impact on their maritime patrol, we will fill it and we’re doing that right now. And that also includes how we deliver other capabilities to the region to support that. But we’re very confident and we’re always in constant dialogue with the government. We’ve got a defence adviser here who meets regularly with the government on those issues.
Foreign Minister: Anything more? Okay. Thanks everyone.