The new foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, has promised to treat Pacific island countries with respect, telling an audience in Fiji that Australia is “a partner that doesn’t come with strings attached” and won’t “impose unsustainable financial burdens”.
Wong promised to respect Pacific priorities and institutions as she set out an implicit contrast with China, which is pursuing a sweeping regional economic and security deal with Pacific nations that would dramatically expand Beijing’s influence and reach into those countries.
When asked on Thursday whether she would actively encourage Pacific island countries to opt out of China’s proposed deal, Wong said each nation would make its own choices – but suggested leaders should think about long-term implications.
“What we would urge, as Australia, is consideration of where a nation might wish to be in three or five or 10 years,” Wong said during an event at the Pacific Islands Forum secretariat in Suva, Fiji.
“I always think that’s a good way to approach big decisions: think about where you might be in a decade.”
In her first trip to the region since being sworn in as Australia’s foreign affairs minister on Monday, Wong also vowed to “put more energy and resources” into the Pacific.
Wong devoted a significant portion of her speech to the climate crisis, which Pacific leaders have repeatedly warned posed an existential threat and must trigger stronger action. The audience included diplomats and officials from across the region.
She said Australia under past governments had “neglected its responsibility to act on climate” and showed disrespect to Pacific nations – but she wanted to “assure you that we have heard you”.
Wong said the election on Saturday showed “a huge groundswell of support for taking real action on the climate crisis in Australia”.
She said Labor had promised a 43% cut in emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050 – and the new government was “firmly committed to making it happen”. Those policies would be enshrined in law and submitted to the UN “very soon”.
“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 pressed on whether Australia should go further on climate, including curbing coal and gas projects and exports, Wong said the global economy was in transition. She defended her government’s policies.
“I understand for some people, particularly the younger generation, they don’t want to wait for that transition but we all have to manage that transition responsibly and in a way that enables continued economic prosperity and equity.”
Wong said she had travelled to Fiji in her fourth day in office “to make clear 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 and we will hear you – your ideas about how we can face our shared challenges and achieve our shared aspirations together,” she said in a speech titled A New Era in Australian Engagement in the Pacific.
In a nod to the growing strategic competition in the Pacific, Wong said the region had “not faced a more vexing set of circumstances for decades”.
Wong said Australia would “draw on all elements of our relationships to achieve our shared interests in building a stable and prosperous region, where rules and sovereignty are respected”.
“The triple challenges of climate, Covid and strategic contest will challenge us in new ways,” she said.
She said Australia would remain a critical development partner for the Pacific family in the years ahead, and “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 agreement will be discussed by Pacific leaders and China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, who has embarked on a marathon tour of the Pacific, visiting eight countries in 10 days.
A draft of the deal, written in a similar style to the controversial bilateral security deal signed by Solomon Islands and China last month, and a five-year action plan, both of which have been seen by the Guardian, cover a huge range of issues, include trade, financing and investment, tourism and public health.
The arrangement would see a dramatic expansion of China’s engagement with policing in the region, with the draft deal proposing to “expand law enforcement cooperation, jointly combat transnational crime and establish a dialogue mechanism on law enforcement capacity and police cooperation”.
China is proposing to hold “intermediate and high-level police training” for Pacific island countries.
China is hoping the deal will be signed by 10 Pacific countries in Fiji next week when Wang hosts the second China-Pacific foreign ministers meeting.
Wong alluded to Wang’s visit – and a lack of transparency on Beijing’s part – during a question-and-answer session with journalists on Thursday.
“I hope that you get the opportunity to ask as many questions of the foreign minister when he comes as you get to ask of me,” Wong said, prompting laughter in the room.
Earlier, without directly mentioning China, Wong set out Australia’s case to be the partner of choice for the region.
“Australia will be a partner that won’t come with strings attached, nor imposing unsustainable financial burdens,” the Australian foreign affairs minister said.
“We are a partner that won’t erode Pacific priorities or Pacific institutions.
“We believe in transparency. We believe in true partnerships. We will respect Pacific priorities and your institutions. We will support growth and development that is sustainable.”
Wong said Australia’s relationship with its Pacific family was not just “a suite of initiatives” such as memoranda of understanding (MOUs).
“It can’t be counted only in dollars or MOUs,” Wong said.
“It so much more, because nothing will change our geography, our proximity. Nothing will change the fact that our future is intertwined.”
Wong said Albanese looked forward to “listening and contributing positively” to the next Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting.
The secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, Henry Puna told the audience that while a lot was expected from the Australian government, there was a lot to also be thankful about.
He said he was “particularly heartened” by the new government’s commitment to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and to weave the voices and practices of Indigenous people into Australian diplomacy.
Puna welcomed Australia’s “recognition of the ongoing climate crisis” and its commitment to work with the Pacific.
“Minister, this is an issue so critical for our survival and we cannot settle for anything less than urgent climate action now,” he said.