Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
PRIME MINISTER: It’s great to be here in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. This is a very significant occasion for the people of Papua New Guinea and it’s just great to see people here swelling with pride about what their nation has been able to achieve in the space of just over a generation.
As I remarked to some of you yesterday, my grandfather was here on these wharves during the Second World War, he was over in Milne Bay and to see where this country has come to over that period of time, I think is tremendous. It clearly has many challenges in the future, but Australia will always be a deeply committed partner to the people of Papua New Guinea. It goes beyond economics, it goes beyond trade, it goes beyond everything. It is a deep-seated family commitment to the people of Papua New Guinea and they know that they will always be able to rely on us. We are their single largest provider of overseas development assistance, but the people-to-people contact is extraordinary.
It has been great to see Prime Minister O’Neill be able host this conference with such professionalism and such skill, I think it’s a great showcase to the Pacific. It’s provided an excellent backdrop also for Australia to be reinforcing the ‘step up’ initiative I announced just over a week ago. That has been incredibly well received by partners directly, whether it was the trilateral relationship we announced this week that has followed through into the announcement yesterday by Vice President Pence, how we’re working together as part of the PNG-led initiative at Lombrum, and here today joining also together with Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Adern, working to power up Papua New Guinea into the future. This is what ‘step up’ is all about. It’s about delivering on the ground, working with partners.
I can also say that yesterday I had the opportunity for a brief meeting with President Xi, which I welcomed. We were able to work on the very positive meetings that I had with Premier Li Keqiang in Singapore and that followed also the very positive meetings that our Foreign Ministers have had previously both in New York and here. This has been good progress that we have been making in each of our relationships. This was recognised of course by President Xi, but also the progress we’ve made at these more recent meetings. There was also a commitment that we would work together where there are opportunities to work together. There is no exclusion in the way we seek to work in the Pacific and where we can work together on important projects and partner for the good of the Pacific, well that’s what we want. We want the good of the Pacific. Because what’s good for the Pacific is good for Australia.
JOURNALIST: PM is Australia still seeking to build the domestic, PNG’s domestic undersea cable project, or is that one lost to Huawei?
PRIME MINISTER: Well there are a range of different projects. What we are here to talk about today is not that project. We have been involved with other projects that have also impacted other parts of the region and they are separate to that. That is a different project to the one we are talking about today.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask you about Lombrum, how big is the fund? How much is Australia going to spend and over what period of time?
PRIME MINISTER: We haven’t made those announcements yet. When we are in a position to do so we will. I should mention that in relation to the electrification project that Australia is putting in $25 million a year to support that project and we’ll be bringing other elements of the package that I announced in the ‘step up’ programme as required or as considered that will also work in with the other partners that are part of that project. But we need to stress very clearly, the Lombrum initiative is a PNG-led initiative. They are leading this project. They have invited ourselves and the United States, we were together with the United States part of the work up programme back in August and that has been able to inform our ongoing participation at this stage. As the project becomes more detailed then obviously we will be in a position to add to that.
JOURNALIST: What does it mean for our security umbrella?
PRIME MINISTER: It’s an important part of the strategic set of arrangements we have in place in our region, I think it’s fairly obvious. It not only provides the opportunity for the collaboration from a defence support point of view. But the other thing it does is it will also be the base for where the Pacific Patrol boats that we are gifting to Papua New Guinea will also be based. Now, ensuring that they have integrity over their fisheries that they possess in the Pacific is massively important to their economic security. So there are both civil as well as strategic elements to what we are doing. But at the end of the day Lombrum is a sovereign Papua New Guinea base. We are there at their invitation and we will work this project up at their pace and on their leadership.
JOURNALIST: It’s already been said by Christopher Pyne that he believes subject to consultations with PNG that it is likely, or probable, that Australian vessels will eventually be based at Lombrum. Do you think that it is probable also that over time US vessels could also be based at Lombrum?
PRIME MINISTER: Well they’re matters for the US to comment on.
JOURNALIST: Did you discuss the Lombrum initiative with President Xi?
PRIME MINISTER: It was a very brief meeting, so he didn’t raise it with me and I didn’t raise it with him. We were focused on our relationship and what we were doing together. That was particularly focusing on the very positive and quite lengthy meeting that Premier Li Keqiang and I had in Singapore and we were both very happy with the outcomes at that meeting and all the issues that we were able to address there. I left the discussion very encouraged.
JOURNALIST: The message being sent by the US in relation to China yesterday was very, very strong, particularly with the announcement about the former naval base on Manus Island. Do you share those same views that Vice President Pence shared yesterday about the Chinese risk to the region particularly the South Pacific?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I express Australia’s views and Australia’s view is that of course we want to see an Indo Pacific which is open and which is free and which respects all independent sovereign states and nations that are within the Indo Pacific. I believe that is ultimately what everybody wants and I think that’s the objective that we stay focussed on.
So I don’t get drawn in to the commentary on the various announcements or initiatives of the various parties that are involved here. Our role here is to ensure that we maximise Australia’s interests and that is done by working incredibly constructively with our long-term partner in the United States - a great friend and ally - and working very closely with the Chinese government with whom we also have an excellent Comprehensive Strategic Partnership which is advancing Australia’s economic interests.
Let’s not forget, Australia is home to a large number – over a million – Australians of Chinese descent and so there is a rich people to people contact between Australia and China as well. It is not beyond our wits and ability and interest to be able to draw both of these relationships together and work constructively with both.
JOURNALIST: Would you like to see the airport on Manus Island be a part of this base and that airport used for surveillance?
PRIME MINISTER: That’s detail we’re not getting into at this stage.
JOURNALIST: The Vice President said that, he would, the Unites States would work with PNG and Australia to protect the sovereignty of the waters surrounding PNG. Are we to read into that that would include increased freedom of navigation patrols, and secondly, when did you learn from the Vice President that the US was signing on to Manus?
PRIME MINISTER: Oh, we’ve been aware of that over the last little while.
JOURNALIST: And in terms of the freedom of navigation, do you think -
PRIME MINISTER: Again, that is getting into a level of operational detail that I wouldn’t be commenting on here.
JOURNALIST: Article 4 and 5 of the 1951 ANZUS Treaty is still in very non-realistic language. Do you think the Pacific Island Defence Force and the sovereign states will seek the ANZUS treaty partners to review those two particular provisions of the 1951 Treaty, which still denies the ability of the Pacific Island States to raise their own army?
PRIME MINISTER: Well all aspects of our involvement at Lombrum are at the invitation of the Papua New Guinean Government. Anything we are doing there in partnership and cooperation with the government of Papua New Guinea, or any of the other partners who are involved there whether it’s the United States or anyone else, that is being done under the sovereignty and at the invitation of the Papua New Guinean Government. So, to the extent that other issues are raised in the context of that, well that is purely at the opportunity of the Papua New Guinean Government.
JOURNALIST: So what would you say to the Governor and others in Manus, the province, who are a bit concerned about this? They say it’s sort of PNG, the wording is - excuse me - what they have referred to as prostituting themselves out to Australia and the United States. What would you say to that criticism?
PRIME MINISTER: I’d say that’s an internal matter for Papua New Guinea and I’ll leave that internal within Papua New Guinea. I’m no stranger to dealing with those issues when it comes to Manus Island and the issues between provinces and the central government. I know full well to leave that to direct discussions between those participants.
JOURNALIST: PM, there has been a lot of internal wrangling over the wording of the communique, there’s obviously some very fiery words from both President Xi and Vice President Pence yesterday in terms of the trade dispute and things like that, and warnings from China about the dangers of trade wars and cold wars and hot wars.
Do you think we are no closer, and if anything we are further apart, to having a resolution to the trade war between China and the US?
PRIME MINISTER: I think every day brings us closer to a resolution of it. That was the nature of the discussion I had with Vice President Pence yesterday, the remarks that were made by the President in the White House I understand, yesterday. While there is much commentary and there are many things that are said, I think the practical elements of what all the other member economies here at APEC have made very clear in our discussions is, that of course we want to see these matters resolved sooner rather than later. It doesn’t assist broader economic growth. In fact, the IMF today made their contribution and highlighted that this could potentially, over a longer period of time if it were not to be resolved – not that they were highlighting that as a likelihood – but that that would have an impact on global and regional economic growth. We all understand that and those sentiments have been expressed both to the United States and to China.
So, I think they’re fully aware, fully aware, because these things also impact their economies, about the need to have a sensible resolution of these issues. The issues have become very well known, whether it’s on WTO, whether it’s on other matters like intellectual property and the like. These are all openly discussed and I think there is a lot more progress being made here than I think is probably being acknowledged. It is certainly not taking place in the context of the more excitable language about how some of these debates are occurring.
JOURNALIST: We are hearing some reports about a bit of a diplomatic blow up between Chinese officials and Papua New Guinean officials. Do you think the Chinese are perhaps a little surprised by the push back by some of the traditionally Western allies on their movements into the region and their keenness to expand?
PRIME MINISTER: In our role here we’ve been very supportive of Papua New Guinea obviously, not just in hosting this event. As you can see the HMAS Adelaide is out there in the waters and provided a backdrop to the Leaders’ meeting there as they looked out the window, so we’ve been here, we’ve had everyone from our Federal Police and other security assistance, we’ve had health officials here, I’ve even had my own brother here who is a paramedic and has been part of the St Johns Ambulance arrangements up here. I caught up with him yesterday and they have been doing a fantastic job.
So, we’ve all been very involved up here and that includes paying absolute respect to our host as Chair of the meeting to bring the communique to a final position. That is their responsibility as the Chair and we’re providing very strong support to the Chair in Papua New Guinea, PM O’Neill, to bring those matters to a head.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister APEC is about cooperation, but given the comments by Vice President Pence and President Xi in the last 24 hours, is this a fractious family relationship and how can it be repaired?
PRIME MINISTER: Well no, I don’t agree with your assessment. I think that overly exaggerates the situation and what I can tell you is, I think there is a lot more pragmatism going on here than people have been prepared to acknowledge in the commentary. There’s a lot of movement under the water, you know, like the duck that’ll paddle pretty quickly under the water. There’s a lot of that going on and I’m encouraged by that and I’m encouraged by the disposition at the end of the day to try and have something resolved. Because it’s basically in everybody’s interest, it’s in everybody’s interest for these matters to be resolved. If we’re patient, if we just stay measured, I think in both of our contributions and our assessment of these things, then I think we’ll continue to make a lot of progress.
JOURNALIST: If feels a bit like a security summit, doesn’t it?
PRIME MINISTER: I want to reassure Australians that what we are doing here is everything we can, to ensure that these matters are addressed pragmatically, constructively and at the end of the day in a way that will see our regional economy, and our regional partners here, that their interests are protected.
I mean, APEC is a group of economies and whether it was at the East Asian Summit earlier, independent sovereign states and nations who simply just want to get on with business. We’re all getting on with each other and we just want to keep getting on with each other. Because I observed that under APEC we have seen a more than a doubling, since it was first established, more than a doubling in the real GDP of these participating economies. On top of that the tariff barriers have fallen from an average of about 16 per cent down to 6 per cent.
So this is an organisation that has got some good results, that has really increased the prosperity of our region. That’s why we’re here. That’s why people come along here. They come here because they want to see the economies cooperate more for our mutual benefit. So today for example, I was focussed in my interventions on how we are taking fintech forward, how we’re taking forward financial technology which supports the digitisation of our economy, which is more inclusive to people in our region. What we were just talking about here, with the electrification initiative, this is about connecting remote areas of what is a very remote country where people live in poverty, to a future. Now how good is that? That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re doing it. That’s what ‘step up’ is all about, but I better step up and get back to the meeting.
JOURNALIST: PM just one more question on the bilateral relationship? China has extended visa free movement between Papua New Guinean politicians and diplomats and China, reciprocal. Would Australia consider that for its nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea?
A: The Papua New Guinean Government, as well as all the other Pacific Island Forum nations are very well aware of the facilitation mechanisms that we are putting in place for each of them. This is an important part of how we are managing these relationships. As you know, we have provided some assistance for some of those states to be able to be represented here at the Forum. This is what we do, we’re friends, we’re family. We support our friends and family so they can participate. I think that has been one of the most important parts of APEC, that Papua New Guinea was able to bring the voice of the Pacific Island Forums to the strongest powers in the world. I think they should be commended for doing that. They have really raised the voice of Pacific Islands in this forum and Australia has always understood that voice and will continue to be a very strong supporter of that voice.
JOURNALIST: PM, I couldn’t help but notice the Chilean delegation chastised you for wearing a tie this morning, is this a gift that you’re wearing this afternoon?
PRIME MINISTER: [Laughter]
This was given to me by Rimbink Pato some years ago, when I was up here quite frequently and I thought I should wear it out of respect to our host. But the tie was actually designed by Peter O’Neill himself - so he’s not only a strong Prime Minister, he’s not too bad on the tie design either.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister you’ve got a barbeque with the Pacific Leaders tonight?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes we have, well, I’ll just comment quickly on that.
JOURNALIST: A bit of snags, a bit of kangaroo?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, they’re all looking forward to it, which is great and I’m looking forward to hosting the Pacific Island Forum Leaders at the residence tonight.
JOURNALIST: Are you cooking?
PRIME MINISTER: I suspect I’ll turn a few things over on the barbeque and there’s a lot of interest and I just think it’s a great time. It’s a family BBQ, that’s what it is. It’s a Pacific family barbeque and we can talk about the events of the last couple of days and I can also be sharing with them a lot more about where we’re looking to work with them on, so many initiatives as part of our ‘step up’ programme in the Pacific. It’s been incredibly well received, both by Pacific Island Forum members, as well as our key partners in the region.
As I said to President Xi, we’ll work with everybody when we’re trying to focus on the development and the advancement of the Pacific. That’s what it’s about. There’s an opportunity to work together and we need to assist these countries to be stronger, because when they’re stronger both in their sovereignty, in their independence, in their economy, that’s all very good news for Australia. Important for Australia that we achieve those objectives. That’s why we’re doing it, because it helps individual Australians, that the Pacific Islands do better than they do now.
Thanks very much.