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The Guardian - AU

Australia to stand with Pacific islands on climate crisis and ‘respect’ region, Penny Wong says

Penny Wong
Senator Penny Wong acknowledges the importance of climate action to Pacific islands, saying Australia stands ‘shoulder to shoulder’. Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Australia’s new foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, will seek to improve relations with Pacific island countries, flagging an early visit to the region and promising to be “a generous, respectful and reliable” partner.

China’s new security deal with Solomon Islands was a point of political dispute during the Australian election campaign and there are now reports that Beijing could be planning to strike a similar agreement with Kiribati.

Shortly after being sworn in as foreign affairs minister in Canberra on Monday, Wong recorded a video message addressed to Pacific island leaders.

In it, she said the new Australian government “knows that nothing is more central to the security and wellbeing of the Pacific than climate change”.

“We have heard the Pacific and we will act – standing shoulder to shoulder with the Pacific as we address the climate crisis,” Wong said in the video.

Labor has pledged to increase Australia’s 2030 emission reduction target to 43% compared with 2005 levels, and will seek to jointly host a UN climate conference with the Pacific. But regional leaders have called on Australia to go further by taking steps such as committing to allow no new coal and gas projects and to curb fossil fuel exports – steps which Labor has not adopted.

Wong said she has become foreign minister “at a time when our region faces unprecedented challenges – but we will face these challenges together”.

“I look forward to visiting the Pacific soon, but the first thing I wanted to do after being sworn in is to share a few thoughts with our Pacific family,” she said.

“We want to help build a stronger Pacific family. That is why we will do more. But we will also do it better.”

She said Australia “will listen because we care what the Pacific has to say”.

In addition to strengthening Australia’s climate policy, Wong said the government will boost Australian assistance to support the region’s pandemic recovery and deepen defence and maritime cooperation.

She cited plans to “work with the Pacific family to expand opportunities for Pacific workers in Australia and improve their working conditions”.

“Currently over 24,000 Pacific workers are here contributing to vital Australian industries and sending money home to support their families while gaining skills they can use when they return,” Wong said.

“We will also deliver a First Nations foreign policy that weaves the voices and practices of Australia’s Indigenous peoples into our diplomacy, and strengthens connections between First Nations peoples and the blue Pacific.”

The video was a deliberate attempt to send an early message of reassurance to the Pacific.

Wong travelled to Tokyo with the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, to attend Tuesday’s Quad summit and bilateral meetings with counterparts from the US, Japan and India.

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, is expected to visit several Pacific countries soon, including Solomon Islands, to formally mark the new security deal.

The Financial Times reported that China is believed to be in talks with Kiribati and at least one other Pacific island country to reach similar security agreements.

During the campaign, Albanese and Wong characterised the Solomon Islands deal as the worst Australian policy failure since the second world war.

But the new government is likely to face challenges if it wishes to prevent similar deals from being struck as Beijing steps up attempts to expand its regional influence.

The Pacific Elders Voice group said in a statement last month that growing military tension in the Pacific region “created by both China and the United States and its allies, including Australia, does little to address the real threat to the region caused by climate change”.

Australia in 2018 signed up to the Boe Declaration, reaffirming climate change as “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific” and committing to action to implement the Paris agreement.

But the prime minister of Fiji, Frank Bainimarama, described Scott Morrison’s approach during the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders’ retreat in Tuvalu in 2019 as “very insulting and condescending”. Climate policy was a flashpoint at that meeting.

Bainimarama suggested that the then prime minister’s approach might cause some Pacific leaders to look to China. “After what we went through with Morrison, nothing can be worse than him,” Bainimarama said in an interview with Guardian Australia at the time.

He congratulated Albanese in a tweet on Sunday, saying “of your many promises to support the Pacific, none is more welcome than your plan to put the climate first”.

Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati and a leading climate campaigner, said he had been “disappointed with the attitudes of the previous Australian government towards the Pacific on a number of fronts, including climate change”.

Tong said while he welcomed Albanese’s proposal to host a UN climate summit in conjunction with Pacific island nations, “this cannot be used to greenwash Australia’s inadequate climate policies”.

The prime minister of Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, wrote a letter to Albanese congratulating him on the election victory. Sogavare assured Albanese “that Solomon Islands remains Australia’s steadfast friend and development partner of choice”.

Labor promised to increase foreign aid to the Pacific by $525m over four years, as part of a program to “restore Australia’s place as first partner of choice for our Pacific family”.