Interview with Greg Jennett, Afternoon Agenda, ABC TV

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s support to increase digital connectivity in Palau, maritime security concerns, President Whipps’ support for AUKUS, ship visits, surface fleet review, Australia’s support for elections in Solomon Islands.

Greg Jennett: Why don't we head to the Pacific now, and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles is in Solomon Islands for a couple of days. He's held talks there with Manasseh Sogavare and others in the government. He went armed with a swag of commitments and offers. Australia is picking up the lion's share of the cost of replacing the small boat fleet that's used every day by Solomon Islands Police Force. $25 million has been put down to conduct next year's delayed national elections, while further to the north the actual Pacific Minister Pat Conroy is in Palau. Australia is working hard on re-establishing its bonds with all the countries in the region, and Palau is one of them. In fact, with its ties to the US, Palau is one of the stronger partners that Australia has.

Pat Conroy is checking progress on projects that Australia is funding there too, and we caught up with him from Koror Island in Palau. Well, Pat Conroy, I think of your many remote conversations with Afternoon Briefing. Koror is probably the furthest away, I think, that you've joined us, so thanks for doing that.

You are visiting the landing point there in Palau, or the termination of the second fibre optic cable to Australia. I note that observers say the island will be well engineered for connection to the world with this fibre but there's very little infrastructure onshore to bring Palau into the digital world. Is that true?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: Well, it's a challenge for this country as it deals with its pretty significant isolation. This is a nation of 18,000 people in the north Pacific, and Australia is supporting the construction of a second fibre optic submarine cable that will triple the bandwidth able to come to this country. And that's incredibly important for tourism, for data-dependent businesses, but also basic health services. President Whipps Jr was telling me yesterday they don't have a single technician in country able to read MRIs. So with the data cable they'll be able to do the scanning in Palau, send the images off to a remote presence and get a diagnosis and treatment plan within half an hour. And so that will be life changing – literally changing lives in Palau.

Greg Jennett: No, I'm sure it's an important investment. Are you aware that Chinese survey ships are paying undue attention, possibly loitering above the underwater fibre cables that have been and are still being installed?

Minister Conroy: Well, President Whipps has raised concerns along those lines and if they prove to be accurate that's very concerning. The sovereignty of the people and government of Palau should be respected by everyone. So I would be very concerned if those fears proved to be true. It's very important that everyone operates in an open and honest manner.

Greg Jennett: Is there anything the Australian Navy or any other arm of the Australian Government could do to deter that or assist Palau in some way?

Minister Conroy: Well, I visited the Joint Operation Centre this morning and met with the Vice President who has carriage of that area and the Australian naval officer who is supporting them, our maritime security adviser. We're proud to have provided a Guardian Class patrol boat to the Palau Police Force. That's part of our two and a half billion dollar program that promotes Pacific maritime security. So that is an excellent asset for the people and Government of Palau, and that does a lot of time patrolling their Exclusive Economic Zone.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, I mean, that is a physical presence, isn't it – the donated patrol boat. What about remote surveillance? What is Australia doing for nations like Palau but not restricted to Palau? I know that the Quad has what's called an information fusion centre that monitors these remote sections of the Pacific Ocean. How does that contribute to awareness of Chinese ships that might be up to no good around fibre optic cables?

Minister Conroy: Well, that was one of the initiatives announced out of the recent Quad meeting. And the arrangements for that centre are being put in place. Another way we're supporting remote maritime surveillance is through the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, which is headquartered in Honiara in the Solomon Islands. We're a very significant supporter of the FFA, and we provide a lot of support for that centre for remote sensing and at the last election the Labor Party took a commitment to the election to double the funding for aerial maritime surveillance. So that complements the two and a half billion we're spending on patrol boats with an aerial presence. And so we're doubling the funding there. And that currently is using crewed aircraft, but obviously we're looking at new technology such as drones to really increase the presence and the surveillance. We know that fishery areas of the Pacific – the Exclusive Economic Zones - are the greatest resource for the Pacific after their people, and over $150 million US is lost each year to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. So it's very important that we support the governments of the Pacific to fix that.

And obviously there's potential for security incursions as well as illegal fishing that we need to support pushback of that as well.

Greg Jennett: I think it's a matter of public record that President Whipps Jr spoke to you about AUKUS, which he supports. Do you envisage or does he, in fact, envisage nuclear submarines on rotation, which will be the first phase of AUKUS presence in Australia? Is it envisaged that that will involve port calls into Palau for reprovisioning?

Minister Conroy: I'm not sure about that, to be honest. President Whipps has been very supportive of the AUKUS technology pact. He understands the need for it and he has been a very vocal proponent of a safe and stable and prosperous Pacific, and he's made the point that the best way of having a stable Pacific is by having strong security within the region. And that's the context for the AUKUS arrangement.

I think what you'll see is obviously our support for the Pacific patrol boats, the Guardian Class patrol boats, but you'll also see other Australian naval assets potentially visiting, whether it's our patrol boats, our Cape Class patrol boats, or our survey vessels or potentially even frigates. They're the sort of naval assets that you see working in the Pacific that are great ambassadors for the Australian people. And I was, for example, in the Federated States of Micronesia in 2019 and one of our survey ships – quite a large ship – was part of the inauguration of the new President. So that ship was there.

So the ADF are great ambassadors for Australia. We'll have senior military presence here for a major regional conference next month, and we're always keen to work closely with the governments of the Pacific on security cooperation.

Greg Jennett: And does the desire for an extra presence by the Royal Australian Navy in these countries like Palau, does that feed into your thinking on the review of Australian naval surface ships – that is, if there's an appetite for Australia to be in more places more often, that could lead to a recasting of the size and number of ships in that review?

Minister Conroy: Well, the surface fleet review is there for two reasons: one is to respond to the simple fact that the structure of our naval fleet was established before we decided to acquire nuclear-propelled, conventionally armed submarines, which are the premier sub hunters in sort of the food chain. So the surface fleet review is about confirming that the structure of the fleet complements the SSN AUKUS, our new nuclear-powered submarines. And secondly responding to the recommendations of the Defence Strategic Review that argued that we needed more what's called tier 2 vessels, so vessels around a Corvette size. And we'll see what the recommendations are there.

But, importantly, the ADF are great ambassadors in this region already. I was handing over some disaster equipment this morning, and that had been transported up using a Royal Australian Air Force Hercules aircraft. And so the ADF does great work. We're always happy to have more visits by our naval assets and our air force where it's of use to the governments of the Pacific, and as we've clearly said and as the leaders of the Pacific have said at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting last year, the security needs of the Pacific should be met by Pacific countries. That when there's a gap in a Pacific country's security, the PIF leaders request that they ask other members of the Pacific family first, and Australia is a proud member of the Pacific family. We'll stand there and aid any Pacific country in need if they request it.

Greg Jennett: All right. Look, just to that end, and finally, Pat Conroy, I see that Richard Marles on his visit to Solomon Islands has now publicly committed the $25 million from Australia to support the election due in that country I think it's April of next year. It's fairly clear that Manasseh Sogavare must no longer regard this as a form of “foreign interference”, which he has previously labelled it as. But what exactly will that buy, that $25 million?

Minister Conroy: Well, we made a commitment to support the election in the Solomon Islands late last year, slightly after my last visit there. And we're working through the details of what that funding will support for the Solomon Islands election process. If I can give you an example: we provided $20 million to support the logistics around the recent Papua New Guinean election from last year. And that included using RAAF aircraft, particularly the Spartan, to transport ballot boxes to remote island provinces so that the people of PNG between their remote communities could vote. And that's really important that they have the opportunity to express their democratic will.

And so that 20 million that we've committed for the Solomon Islands election – sorry, the slightly more than $20 million - is really aimed at assisting the government of Solomon Islands to give every citizen of Solomon Islands an opportunity to express their democratic will. And that's something that we're proud to do. We're proud to be the security partner of choice for the Solomon Islands, whether it's through the SIAF that came in to support and deal with the unrest a couple of years ago or the original RAMSI mission from 20 years ago. We're proud to be the security partner of choice and we're proud to be the development partner of choice for the Solomon Islands as they go on their development journey, including through running elections.

Greg Jennett: And it does sound like that has been warmly received this time around from the Solomon Islands Government.

Pat Conroy, we'll wrap it up there in this conversation from Palau and see where next we speak to you. Thanks for joining us on Afternoon Briefing.

Minister Conroy: Thanks, Greg. Have a great afternoon.

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