This week in Australian foreign affairs: Vanuatu PM visits Australia, Defence Strategic Review report received by Albanese and Marles, 8th Australia-Indonesia 2+2 Defence and Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, and more.
From 14 to 16 February, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese welcomed Vanuatu Prime Minister Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau to Australia. Kalsakau was also accompanied by a delegation including Minister of Tourism, Trade, Industry, Commerce and Ni Vanuatu Business Development, Matai Seremaiah, and Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity, Nakou Natuman. The leaders issued a joint statement on 15 Febraury where they noted that they had “celebrated the long-standing partnership between Australia and Vanuatu and discussed the two countries’ work together on shared challenges and their mutual efforts to support a peaceful, prosperous and resilient Pacific region.” They also welcomed the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement in December 2022 and “noted work in progress towards ratification of the Agreement.” Moreover, they discussed “Australia’s financial assistance in support of Vanuatu’s economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic and recent natural disasters” and “welcomed progress towards new infrastructure projects supporting connectivity in Vanuatu”. The leaders also noted “the urgency of international action to drive greater global action and deeper emissions reductions and the importance of working together to advance real and significant climate action.”
Albanese and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles announced on 14 February that they had received the final Defence Strategic Review (DSR) report, authorised by former Minister for Defence Stephen Smith and former Chief of the Defence Force Sir Angus Houston. Albanese and Marles noted that the Government “will now take the necessary time to consider the Review and its recommendations.” Albanese further stated that the DSR “will help prepare Australia to effectively respond to the changing regional and global strategic environment and ensure Defence’s capability and structure is fit for purpose and delivers the greatest return on investment.” Marles added that “Australia must be resolute in its responsibility to safeguard our region and keep adversaries further from our shores.”
On 9 February, Marles and Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong hosted held the 8th Australia-Indonesia 2+2 Defence and Foreign Ministers’ meeting with their Indonesian counterparts, Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. Ahead of the meeting, Marles noted that “Indonesia is one of Australia’s most important partners and closest friends. Together, we make an important contribution to a stable, peaceful, prosperous and resilient region with ASEAN at its core.” Following the meeting, the Ministers issued a joint statement on 10 February which noted that they had discussed “the significant contribution our bilateral defence relationship makes to regional security” and that they had “agreed to enhance cooperation in trade and investment, development, infrastructure, clean energy transition, defence and security, and people-to-people relationships.” In addition, they issued a joint ministerial statement of intenton upgrading the Defence Cooperation Agreement (2021), which they intend “to bolster our strong defence cooperation by supporting increased dialogue, strengthening interoperability, and enhancing practical arrangements.” The Ministers noted that they have instructed officials to undertaken negotiations “expeditiously” and that negotiations on the Agreement “will include consideration of issues such as reciprocal access to training ranges and streamlined entry and exit processes for joint activities.”
Moreover, on 11 February, Wong and her Indonesian counterpart, Foreign Minister Marsudi, co-chairedthe 8th Ministerial Conference and Third Government and Business Forum of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime (Bali Process) in Adelaide. Ahead of the Conference, Wong noted that “as Co-Chairs of the Bali Process, Australia and Indonesia work closely together to help countries in our region address the abhorrent crimes of people smuggling, human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery.” Also in attendance at the Conference were representatives from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Fiji, France, Hong Kong, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Kiribati, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Nauru, Nepal, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Samoa, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor Leste, Tonga, Türkiye, United Arab Emirates, United States of America, Viet Nam, ILO, IOM, UNHCR and UNODC. The Conference “reaffirmed the mandate of the Bali Process and marked the occasion of its 20th anniversary year” and “confirmed the enduring importance of the Bali Process as a voluntary, inclusive and non-binding forum for policy dialogue, information-sharing and capacity building, to promote and facilitate regional consensus and collaboration to strengthen the collective capacity to address challenges within its mandate.” Ministers acknowledged “that regional and global developments that heighten risks for regional security and stability, including the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, conflict, the use and misuse of technology, including trafficking in persons into online scams, natural and humanitarian, including climate-related, disasters, have exacerbated irregular migration concerns for Bali Process members” and committed to an updated 2023 Adelaide Strategy for Cooperation “that reflects the current challenges faced by Bali Process members”.
Marles addressed the House of Representatives on 9 February on the topic of “securing Australia’s sovereignty.” In his speech, he noted that “in a world in which the rules-based order is under enormous strain, the threat of armed conflict is less remote, and foreign interference is more prevalent than ever, it has never been more important to guard, reinforce and enhance our sovereignty.” Marles referred to Australia’s present strategic circumstances as “the most complex and challenging they have been since the end of the Second World War” and noted that “Russia’s illegal and immoral war in Ukraine is a salutary warning …. [that] the rules-based order that has been vital to our security and prosperity is increasingly under pressure.” He stated that Australia’s interests “stretch across the entirety of the Indo-Pacific” and that Australia “value[s] a productive relationship with China and seek[s] to stabilise this.” Marles also discussed defence cooperation with regional partners including Singapore, and the special strategic partnership with Japan. He further stated that “our cooperation with partners, including our US ally, is managed through robust policy frameworks and principles that maintain and protect our sovereignty” and referred to the United States as “our most vital security partner.” Moreover, Marles discussed the trilateral AUKUS partnership as “the next chapter” and “an example of how countries with shared values and a commitment to peace and security in the region can work together in innovative ways.” He referred to the partnership as “building Australian capability and expanding our strategic options” and that “while there will be much more to say on AUKUS in the weeks and months ahead, Australia will always make sovereign, independent decisions on how our capabilities are employed.” Marles concluded by noting that “we will continue to deepen and evolve our security cooperation with key partners and our US ally to address shared challenges in our strategic environment and advance our mutual security interests. This cooperation will continue to take place in a framework of policies and principles that enables practical cooperation, while maintaining and enhancing Australia’s sovereignty.”
On 15 February, Wong and Minister for International Development Pat Conroy jointly announced an additional $8 million in additional humanitarian assistance to Türkiye and Syria. $4.5 million of the assistance will go to Türkiye, including $2 million “to Australian NGOs through the Australian Humanitarian Partnership to deliver lifesaving assistance, with a focus on protecting those made most vulnerable by the earthquakes”, and the remaining funds to “support ongoing search and rescue efforts and other emerging needs arising from this crisis.” $3.5 million will be provided to the United Nations Population Fund to “deliver maternal and child health services and protect women and girls without safe housing” in Syria. Wong and Conroy further noted that “the earthquakes have also exacerbated the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, where years of conflict have driven millions from their homes.” They also pledged $15 million “through trusted partners to assist conflict-affected Syrians and their host communities in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.”
Moreover, on 11 February, Wong, Conroy and Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Tim Watts issued a joint media statement noting that Australia will provide a further $25 million “in emergency assistance to respond to growing global food insecurity and humanitarian crises.” The funding includes “an additional $15 million for the Horn of Africa, $5 million for Yemen and $5 million for Pakistan.” The funding will specifically assist with “providing food, water and other essential support, delivered through Australian and local NGOs, the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN partners.” Wong noted that “the growing scale of food insecurity and human suffering is deeply concerning” and that “the Australian Government is committed to ensuring our humanitarian assistance responds to the greatest needs.” Watts announced the additional funding while delivering the Dr Apollo Nsubuga-Kyobe Memorial Lecture on 11 February and noted that the funding “builds on $232 million already provided to the World Food Programme since 2021, and financial and technical assistance to countries in our region to help make their food and agricultural systems more resilient.”
Alongside Wong, Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil issued a press release on 14 February where they noted that the Australian Government has tabled its response to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security report on foreign interference risks to Australia’s higher education and research sector. O’Neil welcomed the Committee’s report and noted that “the Australian Government works closely with higher education providers to strengthen resilience to foreign interference risks and protect students, staff and research from foreign actors and intelligence services.” Wong stated that “the Government remains concerned about potential risks to academic freedom through some foreign arrangements at universities and will keep these arrangements under review.” Moreover, O’Neil addressed the Australian National University on 14 February where she further discussed foreign interference in Australia, stating that she wants to “open up a national conversation on an issue that ASIO has stated is one of the biggest domestic security challenges we face.” She discussed the importance of not trying to “politicise this problem” and ensuring that this discussion is one which is “open, informed and is non-partisan”. O’Neil referred to the example of foreign interference from Iran and ASIO’s disruption of “activities of individuals who had conducted surveillance in the home of an Iranian-Australian, as well as conducted extensive research of this individual and their family” and that “where our national interest is served by calling out your operations, we will absolutely do it.” She concluded by stating that “this is a wide and broad problem that our country faces” and that “we are only going to solve it if we have a trusting, open and accountable conversation with the Australian public about what this problem is, where it’s going, and how the Australian Government can help them to solve it.”
On 13 February, Minister for Trade Don Farrell noted that, this week, “we welcome[d] HRH Crown Princess Victoria, Prince Daniel and Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade Johan Forssell of Sweden to Australia.” During meetings with Their Royal Highnesses and Trade Minister Forssell, Farrell discussed “our approaches to supporting developing countries across the Indo-Pacific, including opportunities for collaboration and leadership on climate change” and “the growing trade and investment opportunities between our two countries, including in the renewable energy, mining and resources, manufacturing and defence sectors.” He also reaffirmed “the objective of concluding negotiations on an ambitious and comprehensive trade agreement between Australia and the European Union by mid-year”, noting that Sweden currently holds the six-month Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Farrell stated that “creating new access and investment opportunities through a trade deal with the European Union is a key element of the Albanese Government’s trade diversification strategy.” Assistant Minister for Trade Tim Ayres addressed the Sustainable Mining Summit at the Embassy of Sweden on 15 February where he further discussed the importance of “an ambitious and comprehensive trade agreement between Australia and the European Union” and that Australia “appreciate[s] Sweden’s strong support, as the current President of the Council of the European Union, to conclude trade negotiations by mid-year.” He also noted the “clear links in the mutual interest of Australia and Europe in strengthening investments in critical minerals” and the “strong potential for collaboration [with Sweden] in R&D – for example in mineral and battery recycling – and in standards”.