Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
PRIME MINISTER: Good, well great to be here in Port Moresby again, great to be speaking at the ABAC forum and very pleased to have had the opportunity to do so. I set out my views in the presentation, so I’m happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: You talked about the World Trade Organisation and how it needs to be reformed, how hard are some nations pushing to undermine the WTO at the moment, particularly the United States?
PRIME MINISTER: I think it’s very important in the bilateral discussions I’ve been having - both before coming here and as I’ll have here over the next few days - that we’re just listening carefully and we’re hearing what the various views are about what some of the frustrations are in relation to the WTO. There’s a lot of good work that has been done by Japan, the EU and others who are seeking to find a way forward on this issue. We’re very supportive of those efforts and so look, our role here is to listen carefully and to assist how we to collectively move this issue forward.
JOURNALIST: President Donald Trump has been one of the biggest supporters of protectionism, saying “America first,” were your comments in regards to the United States?
PRIME MINISTER: No, as I’ve said before coming here, I believe the United States wants to see open, freer trade. I think that’s their objective, I think that’s their goal. Now they are pursuing a particular course as to how they might wish to achieve it, but I believe their ultimate goal is to want to see more open and free trade around the world. Obviously, they will always pursue their national interest, like any sovereign, independent nation would. I welcome continued stronger involvement and investment of the United States, here particularly in the Pacific. I just referred to the trilateral arrangement we’ve been able to conclude with United States and Japan. The point I was making in my presentation is this – and it is as true in Australia as anywhere else - in Australia, we have always done well by looking outside our country and our people have prospered significantly as a result of that. It’s our job to articulate that back into our communities, into our local constituencies and actually make the case and that’s what I’ll be doing today. The reason you come to these event, the reason you’d be at APEC, or East Asia Summit, or the G20 – it’s not for the coffee, as good as the coffee might be - it’s actually to ensure that we can have better trading relationships, which means jobs, which means improved prosperity for our peoples. That’s why we do these things, that’s why I’m here.
JOURNALIST: When you say it’s more of a risk now than it ever has been, who are you referring to?
PRIME MINISTER: There is a view within our constituencies that protectionism is the way forward for some. That is an expression of people’s concerns about the way that economics and economic benefits have not reached all parts of our society and all parts of our economy. I talk about this frequently in Australia. That’s why it’s important that we continue to focus on the strong economic plan we have in Australia. I spoke about it in Darwin yesterday in relation to the regional City Deal; these arrangements are designed to improve our economy so the benefits of economic growth can be felt right across all of our people. What I’m talking about today is the need to make that case back into our communities. It’s good for our communities and that’s the argument I’m making.
JOURNALIST: But we’ve had a very clear message from Mike Pence that they’re contemplating escalating the trade war with China. Would that be a mistake and what would the consequences of that escalation be for Australia?
PRIME MINISTER: I tend to deal with issues as they occur not to offer commentary in a sort of prospective way, because I don’t think the alternative is helpful. What I’m stating and have said, actually consistently now, in my previous role and this one, is that I believe the objective of the United States is to achieve a more open and free trading environment, ultimately. That’s their ultimate goal. As we’ve seen them arrive at agreements with Canada and Mexico – at one point people said that was never going to happen – well, it did happen.
So my observation has been to, I suppose, take the advice when President Trump says; “Let’s just see what happens”. He says it quite a bit and I think there’s a bit of a hint in that. So why don’t we just see where this goes. I think it’s important that countries like Australia and Japan – and I discussed this at length with Prime Minister Abe yesterday – continue to have that positive engagement, listening very carefully to the issues -and I’ve said before, the many legitimate issues - that the United States raise and others raise and be careful stewards of how we can take the agenda forward together.
JOURNALIST: Do you share the American view about the theft of intellectual property that the Americans have accused China of doing, do you think that’s a real issue?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, these are concerns that have not just been raised recently, they have been raised by successive administrations and they’re issues that Australia confronts as well.
JOURNALIST: What risk does China play to us and our allies in the Pacific with their aggressive infrastructure expansion?
PRIME MINISTER: I don’t know if I’d describe it like that. I said when I outlined our ‘step-up’ initiative, that we were happy to work with all partners through the region, whether it’s the United States or China or indeed of course Japan. We have that trilateral arrangement that I referred to, but there are many others. I set out in the presentation then that those investments though, have got to be considered on their case, they’ve got to be transparent, they’ve got the be focused on the needs of the economy they’re in, they’ve got to be carefully put together so they don’t create a debt burden that is not sustainable for that country. So, I’ve set out some very clear markers and criteria of where countries can work together. Now, that’s what we’re doing with the United States and Japan and as cases present themselves we’d be very pleased to do that with China as well.
JOURNALIST: Do you believe that trilateral cooperation is plausible with China on infrastructure within the Pacific?
PRIME MINISTER: Well the trilateral arrangement is with the United States and -
JOURNALIST: I know, I appreciate that, but I mean when we had Wang Yi referring to trilateral cooperation and a prospect with Australia and Pacific nations, is that something that Australia would be willing to contemplate?
PRIME MINISTER: I have said it is.
JOURNALIST: Will you be getting any face time with the Chinese President while he is here?
PRIME MINISTER: I suspect we will come across each other, yeah, we’re all in the same place and we will also be in the G20 in a few weeks’ time. I had a very, very constructive and very lengthy meeting with Premier Li Keqiang in Singapore and we covered, as you know, a very wide range of issues at that meeting. So there will be, I’m sure, opportunities here and also Buenos Aires in a few weeks.
JOURNALIST: How much appetite do you actually think there is for Pacific countries to take on more debt? A lot of the analysts have said that they’re already very highly leveraged. Do you think there is actually much of a demand among Pacific countries that they can afford to take loans from Australia?
PRIME MINISTER: This is why projects effectively have to be bankable. We follow that discipline when it comes to infrastructure projects and that’s why the sort of projects we’ve been getting involved in, these are projects that have revenue streams as well. So that’s why they have to be carefully commercially considered and it’s not always just governments, it’s private partnerships as well. There’s private capital involved in these projects. So, I think we need to not limit ourselves to the very old notion of; “Well, here’s a loan to another Government and they build a road”. That’s now how things have been happening for some time. I pointed out in my presentation a number of examples where we’ve had good public-private partnerships which involved multiple countries and multiple corporates. I think that’s the way we can manage those things in the future.
Australia has an enormous amount of experience in the corporate sector for bringing these deals together, so I remain very optimistic as to how that can be achieved in the Pacific. The point I’m seeking to make is, Australia is very, very focused on our priority here in the Pacific, because we believe that it is very much in our interests. Australia, we have always been here. Our relationship with our Pacific Island friends and family is based on our deep connection and particularly here. I mean grandfather was here, in Port Moresby, on these wharves back in the ‘40s. He was here, working on these wharves, as a member of the Australian Defence Force, so our relationship goes deep, very deep. It’s based on real values and real connections. That’s why we’re here and that’s why we will always be here.
JOURNALIST: What’s our most important allegiance, America or China?
PRIME MINISTER: Pardon?
JOURNALIST: What’s our most important allegiance, America or China?
PRIME MINISTER: They’re both important. Thank you.