Australian delegation visits the Pacific amid security concerns

Australian delegates pose in front of the Malvatumauri Nakamal (December 12, 2022)

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong is this week leading a bi-partisan parliamentary delegation to the Pacific to demonstrate Australia’s unwavering commitment to the region amid growing strategic competition.

Labor and Coalition frontbenchers will first visit Vanuatu, where Australian officials have recently been dispatched after a devastating cyber-attack that’s crippled the nation’s critical infrastructure, including hospital systems.

Later the bi-partisan delegation, which includes Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham, Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy and his Opposition counterpart Michael McCormack, will fly to the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau.

A cross-party visit to the Pacific region last occurred during the Turnbull government and Minister Conroy says it’s timely that the practice is now resuming.

“In the Pacific there are three Cs that are the major challenges for the region; and that’s COVID, climate and competition,” Conroy told the ABC before departing Australia.

“There’s significant geo strategic competition in the Pacific and it’s something that we have to be very honest about, but Australia remains the partner of choice for Pacific nations.”

Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham concedes Australia has much work to do.

“These are challenging times, we all acknowledge that, but the challenges faced by our Pacific Island nation friends aren’t ones they face alone, they face it with the support of Australia as friends, as partners, and that’s regardless of who is in government.”

The parliamentary delegation arrived in Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila on Monday as officials there continue to deal with the aftermath of a devastating ransomware attack that took down government servers and websites including hospital systems.

Last week Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau declared 70 per cent of the government’s network had now been recovered but warned the risk of further cyber-attacks remained.

Australian experts, including members of the cyber spy agency ASD, have been deployed to help deal with the aftermath of the attack which is suspected of being launched by a foreign state-based actor.

Local suspicions have focused on Indonesia for the attack because of Vanuatu’s outspoken support for Papuans, but Conroy won’t be drawn on a possible culprit.

“It’s not appropriate for me to speculate on that particular incident but importantly Australia offered our assistance immediately to the government of Vanuatu and it was accepted to support their effort,” he said. 

“That’s a great example of Pacific nations looking to other parts of the Pacific family.” 

The Opposition’s Simon Birmingham says Australia’s assistance demonstrates how important its Pacific neighbours are.

“The fact that Australia is able to step up and help respond to a cyber-attack in a country like Vanuatu is a sign of the depth of our pacific relationship and the range of different ways in which Australia support can be and is valuable to Pacific Island nations”. In Vanuatu the parliamentary delegation will also witness the official handover ceremony for a newly constructed wharf and police boat, as part of Australia’s security cooperation with the Pacific.