Thursday, 10 December 2020
Questions without Notice
Papua New Guinea: Foreign Investment
My question is to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. It concerns the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding between the government of Papua New Guinea, the Fly River provincial government and China's Fujian Zhonghong Fishery company for the construction of a $200 million multifunction fishery industrial park on the island of Daru, in close proximity to the Torres Strait. Did the PNG government consult with the Australian government prior to entering into this agreement, which was announced by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce and strongly backed by the Chinese ambassador in Port Moresby? What views has the Australian government expressed to PNG about this project? What are the national security implications for Australia of a permanent Chinese fishing presence next to the Torres Strait? Is it not the case that such a presence will complicate our security and provide China with a new foothold for interference in PNG?
I thank Senator Patrick for his question and for some brief advance notice of the nature of his question. I am aware of a memorandum of understanding being signed on 13 November this year between Papua New Guinea's Western Province provincial government, the Chinese fishing company, Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Limited and the Papua New Guinea National Fisheries Authority. While bilateral arrangements are a matter for the respective countries, we are in contact with the Papua New Guinea government on the reported memorandum of understanding, in particular to ensure that the full range of Australian interests, including fisheries protection, are fully safeguarded. We are highly trusted partners, Australia and PNG, as demonstrated in the signing of our comprehensive strategic and economic partnership on 5 August. Even in the context of COVID-19, we were able to implement the CSEP. We have the closest of relationships at both the political and operational levels.
I would advise the chamber it is our view there is some way to go before any material activity commences in relation to this MOU. Normal monitoring and enforcement actions by Australian authorities continue to operate to particularly protect our fisheries. We expect all fishers in the Torres Strait region to follow respective Australian and Papua New Guinea laws and international obligations. Our engagement in the Pacific is driven by our commitment to the shared Blue Pacific vision of a secure, stable, inclusive and prosperous region. It is Australia's view that all external partners must respect our region's collective security interests. We make that clear in our engagement and we expect others to do the same.
What are the implications for the operation of the Torres Strait treaty, especially the treaty's provisions relating to fishing activities likely to arise from a large Chinese maritime facility particularly at Daru, including the potential operation of Chinese-controlled fishing vessels under the PNG flag in the Torres Strait? Given that the Chinese fishing fleets have a well-known tendency for the overexploitation of marine resources, how will Australia protect the marine ecosystems of the Torres Strait from their degradation?
I think that is a good question, and there will be more work to do on this matter, clearly, as we seek to understand more in relation to the details of the memorandum of understanding between those organisations and the Papua New Guinea government. But I would advise the chamber that the Australian Border Force has an ongoing presence in the Torres Strait. It has a very close working relationship with law enforcement agencies and with our Papua New Guinea counterparts.
Commercial scale fisheries would not be considered a traditional activity under the Torres Strait treaty and would not be permitted. Only residents of the protected zone are able to undertake such activities, which is intended to protect the air, the sea, the land of the Torres Strait, including the native plant and animal life included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, the CITES, such as dugongs and turtles.
Given Australia's status as PNG's top aid donor, with $596 million in assistance in 2020-21, and our close bilateral ties including our support for PNG's response to the COVID-19 crisis, will the Australian government press PNG to be mindful of our national security concerns in relation to China? Will the government propose to PNG any specific alternatives to replace the proposed fishing vessel projects at Daru?
There are a number of issues in Senator Patrick's question, but the first thing I would reiterate is the closeness of the Australia-Papua New Guinea partnership, manifested literally in August of this year by the signing of a comprehensive strategic and economic partnership. That says we have the closest of relationships at the political and operational levels. As I said, there are a number of aspects to Senator Patrick's question, but one thing I would like to draw the attention of the chamber to is the work we are doing in Western Province, for example, to address their health and development challenges, including through our investment in the Mabudawan Health Centre, and in food and water security. We will continue to support Papua New Guinea's recovery in both health and economic terms from COVID-19. We have a number of programs in relation to water, food security and sanitation, which are very important to the recovery and strong continuation of the region, and we will work closely with our partners on that. (Time expired)