10 April 2018




KATHRYN ROBINSON: Reports that China is interested in establishing a military base in Vanuatu are causing alarm amongst defence and diplomatic communities.

Vanuatu is meant to be within Australia’s sphere of influence and Labor’s Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong says it would be a game changer if China managed to create a forward military base there.

Senator Wong has been talking to National Affairs Correspondent Greg Jennett about that, and the impending international retaliation against the Assad regime for its suspected use of chemical weapons.

GREG JENNETT: Penny Wong just to establish a basic point of culpability on Syria first of all, the Australian Government seems to have formed the view that it was the Assad regime that was responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the city of Douma. Do you have any reason to quibble with that conclusion?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: The regime certainly has form doesn’t it? We know that chemical weapons have previously been used by the regime against its own people. I hear the Foreign Minister this morning indicating that the government’s view and advice is that the regime is responsible for this most recent horrific attack. We certainly have no reason to doubt that given the history of the regime.

This does demonstrate though why it’s so important that the Security Council and the international community re-establish an independent investigative mechanism.

JENNETT: But do you seriously expect it will? Because Nikki Haley for one, the US Ambassador, is accusing Russia of helping the Assad regime avoid international accountability. It’s clearly anticipating the use of a veto here.

WONG: And that would be the wrong thing to do by the Russians. If Russia uses its veto to prevent an investigation I think that says something, that speaks volumes to the international community.

It is prohibited under international law to use chemical weapons. It is against the position of the UN Security Council and it is demonstrably the wrong thing to do. It is a barbaric and murderous thing to do as we have seen.

Russia ought not be using its veto to prevent investigation just as it ought not have used its position previously to prevent further investigation by the international community on previous occasions.

JENNETT: But if it does – and I think it’s fair to say there’s a fair amount of anticipation that it will – are you okay with the US taking a leadership role in the use of limited and targeted airstrikes against Syria as President Trump authorised last year?

WONG: You refer to last year and on the previous occasion the Labor Party indicated its support for that limited response on the basis that it was important for the international community to draw a line in relation to the use of chemical weapons.

I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about what might or might not happen. Diplomatic pressure, political pressure, international pressure needs to be asserted at this point to enable a proper investigation to be undertaken and we join with all countries in urging Russia to not exercise a veto and to hold the regime to account.

We know what chemical weapons are we, know what they mean, we know what the position of the international community is and we’d urge Russia to exercise its influence constructively.

JENNETT: Let’s see what happens. Closer to home there are suggestions that China may be looking to establish a military beachhead, or at the very least a military base in Vanuatu very much in our region. Does that ring alarm bells with you?

WONG: This is a potential game changer for the region and for Australia.

I know that the Foreign Minister this morning said that she wasn’t advised of any such acquisition or any such arrangement being put in place and I know these are only reports but we should regard this as a potential game changer.

It would have, not only security, but economic consequences for the region and we should regard it as a wake-up call for Australia in terms of our position in the South Pacific and the leadership role we are expected to play and we need to play in that region.

JENNETT: What are the implications that you’re alluding to there, both economic and security?

WONG: What I’d say is this, that obviously what the countries of the South Pacific want is a vision of a stable and prosperous region. What I would say is militarisation and competition in the region is not something that is conducive to the sort of stable and prosperous region that all of us want.

JENNETT: Do you think this was inevitable though? Meeting this point of transformation, if that’s what we’re watching in Vanuatu, from civilian aid the construction of a port suddenly it morphs across into something with an ostensibly military purpose in Vanuatu. If it happens in Vanuatu, how would that not happen with any number of other infrastructure investments China is rolling out in our region?

WONG: I made the point that these are reports only and that Julie Bishop has suggested that she is not aware of any such events.

But again I say this, I think this is a wake-up call. That if we have increased competition between powers in the region that has significant consequences for the region and for Australia, economic and security, so we do need to think very clearly about what it is we want to do in terms of engagement with the region.

JENNETT: And what about counselling China Beijing itself? You’re talking about relations with our neighbours, how about asking Beijing to cease-and-desist if these plans are actually happening?

WONG: I think that it is not in the interest of the region or in the interests of stability for there to be increased competition, great power competition, in our region.

JENNETT: You don’t see it as inevitable now? That it is already baked in to relations for this century?

WONG: I think the disruption we are seeing in the international environment is a reality and we have to deal with it. But I don’t think Australia, as a middle power and the significant power in terms of the South Pacific, can say anything is inevitable and walk away.

What we need to do is to say this is what we want for the region, this is what we are prepared to do. We are going to stop cutting the Aid Budget, we are going to work with you and we are going to deeply engage and we will work with you on the vision for a stable and prosperous region. That’s what we all want.

Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.