RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly
19 November 2018
SUBJECTS: Lombrum Naval Base, Australian Embassy in Israel
FRAN KELLY: Australia's engagement in the South Pacific ramped up significantly over the weekend. Prime Minister Scott Morrison using the APEC summit to announce a spate of infrastructure investments for small island states. Critically a partnership was sealed with the US to redevelop the Manus Island Naval Base in Papua New Guinea. The upgrade could allow America and Australian ships to project well into the Pacific. It's viewed as a transparent bid to try and counter China's growing influence throughout the region. Foreign policy expert Michael Wesley told us earlier that Australia might be buying a fight with Beijing.
MICHAEL WESLEY: What we've done is heightened our alliance and downed the United States in terms of a security commitment much more closely to our interests. The question is, Fran, whether that's a good idea at the moment, whether given the fact that the region is moving towards a multipolar order, whether we want to be aligning much more tightly and closely with the United States - and that's a very open question. And I think in the medium long term we may look back on these three days and think maybe we took the wrong choice here.
[End of excerpt]
FRAN KELLY: That's the ANU’s Michael Wesley speaking with us earlier. Well Christopher Pyne is Australia’s Defence Minister. He joins us from Adelaide this morning. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Good morning Fran. Thanks for having me again.
FRAN KELLY: By partnering with the US to upgrade the Manus Island Naval Base, we've now allied our interests in the region very closely with the US. Have we, indeed, bought a fight with Beijing?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Fran, we’re partnering with the PNG government. We've been invited by PNG to upgrade the Manus Island Naval Base at Lombrum. We will be doing so. We’ll be the person providing the finance and also building the new constructions with PNG and we'll be basing our future vessels at the Lombrum Naval Base along with PNG’s new Guardian-class provided by the Australian Government. And the US will work with us as part of that new naval base. But the primary driver of it is PNG and they invited us to be part of it and we are working with the US on making sure that that is at its maximum capability.
FRAN KELLY: And the Prime Minister said Australia is taking its relationship with the US in the region to, quote; a new level. So he's putting it in that context, not just the redevelopment of the naval base but new infrastructure spending throughout the region. Relations between Canberra and Beijing it was thought were starting to improve. There was talk of a reset after a couple of strained years. Do you think all this Pacific manoeuvring could put that at risk?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well no, I certainly don't and it shouldn't be seen in the context of China, it should be seen in the context of Australia being responsible for a large part of the South West Pacific in terms of assisting and supporting our friends and family across the South West Pacific in terms of humanitarian and disaster relief. Protecting them from people smugglers, assisting them in terms of environmental vandals and illegal fishers and military security. So, the announcements we've made recently in the Pacific pivot have included the Lombrum base at Manus Island. Last night we announced that we will invest in supporting Vanuatu's facilities for their marine and military capabilities as well as their police capabilities. We announced that we’ll build the Blackrock police and peacekeeping training facility in Fiji, and as well as that a large hulled vessel for humanitarian disaster relief and the Prime Minister’s announced significant electrification of PNG, along with New Zealand, Japan, the US and PNG and other investments in terms of infrastructure and support for a new major capabilities across the PNG but that- across the South Pacific, but that shouldn’t be seen in the context of China. It should be seen in the context…
FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] Why not? I mean what you've just described is clearly a shift in the strategic balance in the South Pacific? Isn't it all about trying to contain or at least deny China a free reign in the Pacific?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well I think Michael Welsley’s contribution is breathless. It's not actually the intention of the government to do anything other than support the 22 countries in the South West Pacific. We have a particular responsibility as the major economic power in the region and a significant military spender to support the countries across the South West Pacific to protect them from illegal fishing, from people smuggling, to assist them with environmental vandals, to help them with humanitarian and disaster relief. That's been our history. We are stepping that up in this very substantial Pacific pivot and we're pleased to work with our allies like the United States, Japan and New Zealand and of course PNG in order to bring that about. And APEC has been an unadulterated triumph for the PNG and we've supported it in that as you'd expect us to do.
FRAN KELLY: You’re listening to RN Breakfast, it’s nineteen minutes to eight. Our guest is the federal Defence Minister Christopher Pyne. Can I ask you specifically about the Lombrum Naval Base? This was a decision that was- we’d heard about previously under the Turnbull Government but the announcement of the US partnering with us was front and centre at APEC. It’s a highly strategic facility. It’s open access to the Pacific and sea approaches to Australia. How important strategically was it for Australia to get our hands on this base before China did? China, we’ve learnt was also interested.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Fran, this was an announcement by the Morrison Government but it was in the works under the Turnbull Government [indistinct] …
FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] Yeah, I'm referring to- we heard about this some months ago that this was likely.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well it's been in the works for some time as has the United States engagement with it. And we will work with the United States but I would stress it's a PNG invitation for us to upgrade and be part of the Lombrum Naval Base. Look, it's a very significant strategic base and of course we've been there for some time in a regional processing centre for asylum seekers and it sits at a very important part of the south west Pacific and I don’t think it’s seen as a competition with any other country to gain support for this base. We were invited by PNG [indistinct] …
FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] [Talks over] Well, just let me give you the words of the US Vice President though - Mike Pence said the naval base will help Australia and the US keep the sea lanes open, quote: we will work to protect the sovereignty and maritime rights in the Pacific Islands. Who are those maritime rights under threat from?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well we are countries - the US, Australia, PNG - who believe in the free navigation of international waters and the international rules-based order and the free use of overflight by aeroplanes throughout our region and having a base at Lombrum and vessels platforms based there along with potentially the US and of course PNG will ensure that we can continue to support the international rules-based order which has been vital for our economic development, our trade and our maritime security.
FRAN KELLY: Lombrum is a deep water harbour. It can host vessels as big as aircraft carriers, certainly frigates; what Australian ships do you envisage being berthed there?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Fran, certainly there could be offshore patrol vessels based there once we finish the expansion of the wharfing and the accommodation facilities and other aspects of the Lombrum Naval Base. Whether we place larger platforms there will be a decision that the Chief of the Defence Force will make at an appropriate time down the track in consultation with his or her counterpart in PNG.
FRAN KELLY: And how much will this cost Australia and will that funding come from the Defence budget or the aid budget?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well we haven't revealed yet the cost of the expansion of the naval base but it will come from the Defence budget.
FRAN KELLY: The big issue or the major issue clouding Australian foreign policy at the moment, is the suggested relocation of the Australian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This caused problems, we saw, for Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, with Indonesia and Malaysia at the ASEAN conferences. The Government appears to be split on this. The Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told us pretty forcefully here on Breakfast on Friday that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is the right decision. This morning we hear the Defence Industry Minister - former trade minister - Steve Ciobo saying it would be a mistake to move it. Why has this delicate foreign policy decision been played out in public like this?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well you'll have to ask the people who are making those comments, Fran. I can tell you there is a process in place. It's the right process to determine whether the Australian Embassy should be in the capital of Israel which is West Jerusalem. Now if the shoe was on the other foot, it would be like Israel saying that they intend to put their embassy in Sydney and pretend that Canberra isn't our capital. Now, we’d think that was unusual and …
FRAN KELLY: Yes, but it's not an isolated debate, Minister. It comes in the middle of global efforts that have been going on for decades and still persevere for a two-state solution. It's understood this is a delicate issue.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: And that's why we're going through a proper process to determine whether it’ll assist the two-state solution for us to move our embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem on the side of Israel and in the event that the Palestinians have a state of their own, which we hope that they will, and that's the Government's policy, axiomatically, we would then establish an Australian embassy in East Jerusalem should that they their capital. It's an even handed policy. But first we have to go through the process to see if it's in Australia's best interests. But I would stress that it's not really up to other countries to determine our foreign policy. I know that Labor has subcontracted out foreign policy to other governments. We’ll make the decision about where our embassy is in Israel and no other country will determine that on our behalf.
FRAN KELLY: I think Australians are interested in in what context we make the decision. We've already heard for instance from Indonesia that it could affect the free trade deal, there which would mean jobs. We've heard from Malaysia; it could affect the causes of terrorism. You’re the Defence Minister. I know you've been interested in expanding Australia's arms trades- arms business with the Middle East - presumably that might be under threat. This is not a decision that comes in isolation, is it?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well foreign policy should be values-based Fran. That's always been Australia's principled stand. We believe in a values-based foreign policy, not a transactional foreign policy. Indonesia and Malaysia don't even have diplomatic relations with Israel. So while their views are of interest to us - of course they are - they don't decide our foreign policy. That is an Australian sovereign decision which we will make after a proper process has been conducted.
FRAN KELLY: Christopher Pyne, thank you very much for joining us.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: It's a pleasure.
FRAN KELLY: Christopher Pyne is the federal Defence Minister.