Penny Wong tells Pacific nations ‘we heard you’ as Australia and China battle for influence

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New Foreign Secretary Penny Wong has vowed to treat Pacific island nations with respect, telling an audience in Fiji that Australia is “a partner without strings attached” and will not impose “unsustainable financial burdens”.

Wong promised to respect Pacific priorities and institutions by drawing an implicit contrast with China, which is pursue a broad regional economic and security agreement with Pacific countries this would greatly expand Beijing’s influence and reach in these countries.

When asked on Thursday whether she would actively encourage Pacific island nations to withdraw from China’s proposed deal, Wong said each nation would make its own choices – but suggested leaders should consider the implications at hand. long term.

“What we are urging, as Australia, is to look at where a nation might want to be in three, five or 10 years,” Wong said at an event at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. in Suva, Fiji.

Related: China’s proposed deal would dramatically expand Pacific security influence

“I always think that’s a good way to approach big decisions: think about where you might be in a decade.”

On her first trip to the region since being sworn in as Australia’s foreign minister on Monday, Wong also vowed to “put more energy and resources” into the Pacific.

Wong devoted a significant portion of his speech to the climate crisis, which Pacific leaders have repeatedly warned poses an existential threat and must trigger stronger action. The audience included diplomats and officials from across the region.

She said Australia under previous governments had “neglected its responsibility to act on climate” and disrespected Pacific nations – but wanted to “make sure we heard you”.

Wong said Saturday’s election showed “a huge outpouring of support for taking real action on Australia’s climate crisis”.

She said Labor had promised a 43 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050 – and the new government was “strongly committed to getting there”. These policies would be enshrined in law and submitted “very shortly” to the UN.

“We will end the climate wars in Australia,” Wong said.

“This is a different Australian government and a different Australia, and we will stand shoulder to shoulder with you, our Pacific family, in response to this crisis.”

Later, when asked if Australia should go further on climate, including limiting coal and gas projects and exports, Wong said the global economy was in transition. She defended the policies of her government.

“We’re raising our ambition very substantially and it’s not just lip service,” she said.

Wong said she traveled to Fiji on her fourth day in office “to clarify on behalf of the new Australian Government and in particular on behalf of the new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, [of] our commitment to you.

“We will listen to you and we will hear you – your ideas on how we can address our common challenges and achieve our common aspirations together,” she said in a speech titled A New Era in Australia’s Engagement in the Pacific. .

Winking at the growing strategic competition in the Pacific, Wong said the region had “not faced a more vexing set of circumstances in decades.”

Wong said Australia would “build on all elements of our relationship to achieve our common interests in building a stable and prosperous region, where rules and sovereignty are respected”.

“The triple challenge of climate, Covid and strategic competition will challenge us in new ways,” she said.

She said Australia would remain a key development partner for the Pacific family in the years to come and would “contribute to the long-term stability and security of the Pacific”.

Wong’s trip comes as China proposes a regional deal with 10 Pacific island nations.

The deal will be discussed by Pacific leaders and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who embarked on a marathon tour of the Pacificvisiting eight countries in 10 days.

A draft of the agreement, written in a style similar to that of the controversial bilateral security agreement signed by the Solomon Islands and China last month, and a five-year action plan, both of which have been seen by the Guardian, cover a wide range of issues including trade, finance and investment, tourism and public health.

The arrangement would see a dramatic expansion of China’s engagement with police in the region, with the draft agreement proposing to “expand law enforcement cooperation, jointly combat transnational crime and to establish a dialogue mechanism on law enforcement capacity and police cooperation”.

China proposes to organize “middle-level and high-level police training” for Pacific island countries.

China hopes the agreement will be signed by 10 Pacific countries in Fiji next week when Wang hosts the second meeting of China-Pacific foreign ministers.

Wong alluded to Wang’s visit – and a lack of transparency from Beijing – during a question-and-answer session with reporters on Thursday.

“I hope you have the opportunity to ask as many questions of the Foreign Secretary when he comes as you will ask me,” Wong said, sparking laughter in the room.

Earlier, without mentioning China directly, Wong presented the case of Australia as a partner of choice for the region.

“Australia will be a partner without strings attached or imposing unsustainable financial burdens,” the Australian foreign minister said.

“We are a partner that will not erode Pacific priorities or institutions.

“We believe in transparency. We believe in true partnerships. We will respect Pacific priorities and your institutions. We will support sustainable growth and development.

Wong said Australia’s relationship with its Pacific family was not just “a suite of initiatives” such as memorandums of understanding (MOUs).

“It can’t be counted only in dollars or in memorandums of understanding,” Wong said.

“It’s so much more, because nothing will change our geography, our proximity. Nothing will change the fact that our future is linked.

Related: Five things we learned about China’s Pacific ambitions from leaked deal | Anna Powles

Wong said Albanese looked forward to “listening and contributing positively” to the upcoming Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting.

Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Henry Puna said he was “particularly encouraged” by the new government’s commitment to the Heart of Uluru Declaration and to incorporating indigenous peoples’ voices and practices into diplomacy Australian.

Puna welcomed Australia’s “recognition of the ongoing climate crisis” and its commitment to working with the Pacific.

“Mr. Minister, this is such a critical issue for our survival and we cannot settle for anything less than urgent climate action now,” he said.