WILMER JOEL and GIFF JOHNSON
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s whirlwind visit last week had two immediate impacts:
• From Wong’s signing of an agreement with Culture and Internal Affairs Minister Ota Kisino last Thursday at noon, V7AB aired its first Australian Broadcasting Corporation program, one of several that are to be aired on a regular basis on the government AM station.
• The second item was the official opening of the Australian Embassy at the NAPA building and the unveiling of a plaque marking the occasion.
This was Wong’s second visit to the RMI. She is the first high-profile leader to visit since the opening of the borders in September. Wong’s first visit was with her predecessor Julie Bishop in 2018.
She was welcomed island-style last Wednesday night at Amata Kabua International Airport by Foreign Minister Kitlang Kabua and an entourage of Marshallese women serenading and adorning Wong with leis.
On her first day in the post last May, she vowed that the current Australian government “knows that nothing is more central to the security and wellbeing of the Pacific than climate change.” She added, “we want to build a stronger Pacific family. It is why we will do more and we will also do it better, we listen because we care about what the Pacific has to say.”
Her words were put to the test during her visits around Majuro. Wong first visited Waan Aelon in Majel (WAM) accompanied by Ambassador Brek Batley chatting with Director Alson Kelen and getting a tour of the facility. Kelen told the Journal that WAM was honored to show the skill of the people of the Marshall Islands to Minister Wong.
Her visits included the area of the sunken ships across MIHS, Pacific Sea Level and Geodetic Monitoring Station next to NTA, Jenrok track field site meeting up with Majuro Nitijela Member Tony Muller and RMI’s Olympic Committee, International Conference Center for meetings with President David Kabua and Minister Kabua, Alele Museum, and College of the Marshall Islands.
She also officially opened the Australian Embassy that is located on the fourth floor of the NAPA building in Uliga.
“We are both members of the Pacific family and we want to work together with you to deal with the challenges of these times,” said Wong after the signing ceremony with Culture and Internal Affairs Minister Ota Kisino for the sharing of radio content between ABC Radio Australia and V7AB radio. “We want to make sure we listen, we want to work with you in partnership and mutual respect for the betterment of the region.”
Of note, too, about this visit is the connection between RMI Foreign Minister Kitlang Kabua and Wong. In the Pacific region, there are only three foreign ministers who are women: Australia, New Zealand and RMI. No doubt, this adds to the friendly connections in the RMI-Australia relationship.
Notable, too, on the visit was the presence of USAG-KA Commander Thomas Pugsley at several of Wong’s events, where they joined with US Ambassador Roxanne Cabral, including at the embassy opening and the evening dinner hosted by Kabua at the Marshall Islands Resort.
Key to the success of the visit, however, was removal of the climate change stumbling block that acted as the elephant in the room for Pacific islands under the previous Morrison government. Throughout the visit, Wong discussed climate issues and programs with officials here, a sign of the change in emphasis of the government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.