Joint Press Conference, South Pacific Defence Minister's Meeting, Tonga

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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19 October 2022

SUBJECTS: South Pacific Defence Ministers’ Meeting.

THE HON. HU’AKAAVAMEILIKU, PRIME MINISTER OF TONGA: Thank you for joining us for this press conference. Joined today by head of delegations from member countries, and also some observers. We'll take a few questions, we've only got about half an hour. We can do it in Tongan or in English. So we'll start the press conference, ask a question, if you have any.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

THE HON RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER OF AUSTRALIA: Well, thank you for that. Thanks for the question. I think the answer that question is yes. So it was, I think first and foremost, a real sense of the Pacific family coming together in a moment to help a member of the family. That's how we saw it. I'm sure that's how other countries who provided assistance saw it as well. And, I mean, we actually toured the site yesterday, where the greatest impact of the tsunami was, and what's amazing is you look at that now and you think about the whole island being covered in ash back in January. And it's incredible, the recovery that we have seen across Tonga, which says so much about the resilience of Tonga, the leadership of the Prime Minister. But, you know, from our point of view, we were really pleased to pay play whatever part we could in relation to that. We have thought about it as a learning experience, it is a really good question. And I've spoken with my good friend, Minister Henare from New Zealand and others here about how we can learn from this - the good and how we can do better going forward around greater coordination, making sure that we are ready to respond. And that has been a topic of discussion for all of us. Because whilst this was not a climate change related event, obviously one of the impacts of climate change is an expectation of more cyclones within the Pacific, more disasters, and so making sure that our disaster response is excellent in the way in which we coordinate with each other is going to be really important going forward. And I think we are very keen to make sure that we get those learnings right, and that we make sure that our coordination is maximised.

THE HON PEENI HENARE, NEW ZEALAND MINISTER OF DEFENCE: If I can add in support of Deputy Prime Minister Marles’ words, we, of course, our thoughts are with the things in the military victory. It was quite poignant back in New Zealand, because of the large Tongan community we have in New Zealand, who were looking for a strong response from ourselves and other partners. So yes, there are lessons there. And some of those lessons are about the frequency of events like this, where, because of the unexpected nature of many of these events, we need to be prepared for frequency in the coming months and years. Of course, we have the cyclone season just around the corner. And then the other part is we should always be looking to do better. And what I've been most encouraged by in our time here at this conference, is the way that we've all focused on how we can do better and making sure that we can respond accordingly.

JOURNALIST: A question to the Australian and New Zealand ministers, with China's growing influence in the region, what strategies have this defence meeting agreed on to strengthen regional security of member countries?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER MARLES: Our starting point really is thinking in terms of building the resilience and the security of the Pacific family. And the way we think about it is to think in terms of our own relationship with the Pacific as a country of the Pacific. So I'm reluctant to answer the question in the context of a third party, as it were. I think we live in a complex world, a more strategically challenging world. But what's really important is that nations that are friends and family are coming together to build their collective security. And that's really been the spirit that underpinned the conversations that we have had during the course of yesterday, and what we'll have later this afternoon. And I would also say that while we can talk about the situation of great powers, I think for so many countries of the Pacific, the existential threat is climate change. And it's really responding to that, as we've just described, in respect of greater frequency of weather events, more severe weather events, but also the way in which climate change is putting a stress on water security for a whole range of countries in the Pacific. Defence and a notion of security has as much to do with that as anything else. And that's very much been the way in which we've been thinking about this and talking about it. And doing so from, as I say, the sense of building a sense of resilience and strength amongst the family.

MINISTER HENARE: In addition, we, of course, respect the sovereignty of all nations in the Pacific. And it's from that perspective that we look towards how we can be good partners in the Pacific. But we can be good partners with those who have shared values like New Zealand, which we believe Tonga, and our friends in the Pacific do have shared values like New Zealand. Of course, we are of the Pacific. This is our homeland in New Zealand, and we've got a job to make sure, though, that we can continue to secure the Pacific for its future prosperity, which is ultimately what we all want for the Pacific. And of course, New Zealand has always been a follower of the international rules-based order. That’s what the architecture and the underpinning of that architecture in New Zealand's mind is that to make sure that that particular doctrine is held fast to here in the Pacific, and of course New Zealand will support that.

JOURNALIST: I understand this meeting has been a platform for defence ministers to bounce off ideas and collaborate on how to address some issues that we are facing. I'd like to ask the Prime Minister, if you could share your views on the issues raised so far, such as climate change (inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER HU’AKAAVAMEILIKU: Thank you. You're right, there was some discussion on different topics. That's including cybercrime, cyber security, as you would probably know, ICT technology has been widely used in the region, and together with the benefits there are threats. So there has been some discussion on how can we address it, how can we mitigate it. And of course, climate change was a popular topic, discussing how it actually affects the Pacific as a region and also as a country. At the same time, we had some discussion on IUU fishing, the economic loss from some of the tuna stocks for lack of a better word, misappropriated or stolen from the Pacific, that also pose security constraints, given the huge amount of tuna that can be taken from the Pacific. So those are some of the security concerns, threats, that were discussed. And of course, they are interlinked. And we're hoping through this type of dialogue, we can come up with some collective actions to actually address those key issues.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

RADM MICHAEL DAY, COMMANDER DISTRICT 14 UNITED STATES COAST GUARD: I don't know if I have the answers for what the entire United States is doing on carbon reduction, but I can tell you what we are doing in terms of resilience in helping nations respond to the effects of climate change. Because as a Coast Guard, we save lives, we respond to incidents. That's kind of our reason for being and why we exist, and we seek to partner and help them in that domain. You are accurate, there's a lot of (inaudible) energy products, looking at alternative energy projects throughout the United States, and seeking less dependence on different sources of carbon emission.

JOURNALIST: Drug trafficking in the region seems to be something that is also (inaudible). How has the meeting addressed that issue? Has there been any discussion on that?

MINISTER HENARE: Thank you for the question. It has come up in our discussions, the matter of transnational crime Now, the impact of transnational crime is significant throughout the Pacific, and all the way down, of course, to Australia and New Zealand. And it's a huge concern to all of us. Some of the discussions that we've had, and our opportunity here is about how do we make sure that we support each other in a network of countries who are able to patrol waters, addressing methods that the Prime Minister has raised too of illegal fishing. How do we make sure we have the capabilities and support each other's capabilities to be able to do the necessary patrolling and work to minimise and cut out transnational crime. That's an evolving piece of work, as many of us have different capabilities. And we've had an opportunity to discuss where we think we can contribute. And I look forward to our ongoing work collectively, as well as other government agencies, for example, in New Zealand, it involves our customs, and involves our fisheries organisations, to make sure that we can work collectively to wipe out the transnational crime. That is a huge concern to each and every one of us. And I've enjoyed the conversations that we've had in order to deal with that.

JOURNALIST: What would have been probably the big issues or the outcomes that could have come out of this meeting yesterday and today? What can we as the Pacific media and local media share has been the success stories of the meeting so far? Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER HU’AKAAVAMEILIKU: Basically, the fact that we're here, face to face, it's a big achievement. While we’ve yet to finish our meeting, we’ve got another two or three hours to actually come together and close the meeting with a few more discussion. So we'll probably do a press release later on, on our final meeting summaries. But again, as I said before, you know, just having this opportunity to have a face to face meeting, discussing lessons learnt, discussing some of the experience here in Tonga, we visited (inaudible) and actually looked into rebuilding and sharing some of the experiences here in Tonga hopefully that will resonate in terms of what kind of framework can we come up with, collectively as a region to help engage any of our members go through similar crisis in the future. One of the discussion is about pre-positioning of supplies. You know for those of you who are here in Tonga, you know, after the ash fell, you know, the runway was covered with ash for a few days to actually clean up. So (inaudible) lining up, but you know, the runway needed to be cleaned up. But if we had pre-positioned supplies, you know that can help. And the same goes if there's a disaster in Fiji, Samoa, (inaudible), if we had supplies here in Tonga, we can readily ship them over to the affected countries. (inaudible). One of the discussion is how can we move that forward, and there is a possibility we can elevate it up to the leaders’ meeting (inaudible), and those are some of the discussion that we'll be finalizing, after the press conference.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER MARLES: I think, as the Prime Minister has said, this is the first face to face meeting since the pandemic. And Tonga has done just a wonderful job in putting the meeting together hosting us here, I think we would all feel an enormous sense of gratitude and warmth for the hospitality that we have been shown by Tonga in in holding the meeting, I think it's also been, as the Prime Minister said really useful to be here in the aftermath of the volcano tsunami disaster earlier in the year to look at the way in which the disaster response happened, as in the answer to the first question, what we did well, what we could do better. And that has led us as the Prime Minister said, to look at a framework, Fiji has done a lot of work in putting this together, under which we can have standard operating procedures where we know exactly what to do the moment a disaster hits, that the coordination happens immediately. So that we can really make sure that those efforts are done as best as possible going forward, knowing that we are going to see more of these events given the effects of climate change. I think that is a really big outcome from the meeting.

We've also talked then a lot about how we can leverage the existing assets in the region, as Minister Henare was describing, to do more in relation to patrolling and policing the exclusive economic zones of the countries of the Pacific. The US Coast Guard is really leading the way here in the shiprider agreements that it has done, that the US has done, through the Coast Guard with countries in the Pacific, which enables those vessels who are on their ordinary patrols to immediately be transformed into vessels which can do policing in respect of illegal fishing in relation to exclusive economic zones. We see that as a model that could be expanded upon so that we can really build a very strong network of protection for the exclusive economic zones of the region. And actually, that's really important, it's important in any event, but I think is a really important outcome in the context of climate change as well. Because climate change, potentially the movement of fish resources, but also the movement of people associated with that is going to raise questions around and place pressure on the existing architecture, which is why it's really important that we have a very effective network of policing in place.

And then the final point I'd make is more general one in terms of the meeting the sense of unity, of warmth of all of us as countries that really are part of not just a group of friends but really a family wanting to work more closely together for our collective security has been very clear in this meeting. And I think as a spirit and a sentiment going forward in everything that we consider that's been really valuable.

PRIME MINISTER HU’AKAAVAMEILIKU: While you're thinking about it, let me sum up some of the discussion in Tongan.


JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER HU’AKAAVAMEILIKU: We talked about Rugby League, just a little bit. I’d like to congratulate Papua New Guinea (inaudible) Tonga. A very great, great game this morning. And we look forward to a very exciting Rugby League World Cup and congratulation to all the Pacific players involved. And we look forward to more, as I said before, exciting games.

MAJGAN MARK GOINA, PNG CHIEF OF DEFENCE FORCE: Firstly, let me on behalf of all people congratulate Tonga for a good win this morning. Well done.

In relation to your question, you know, that particular issue was not discussed today. We feel that is an issue that is discussed by Indonesia, so is best left to that, probably in another forum. This particular forum was mainly on, the areas that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister from Australia have touched on. I'll leave it at that, thank you.


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