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OLIVER PETERSON: The Australian Government has today committed Defence Force personnel to join a US-led effort to protect the shipping channel in Iran. The Defence Minister Linda Reynolds can tell you more; she joins me on Perth Live.
Minister, good afternoon.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Good afternoon, Oly. It’s great to be back with you.
OLIVER PETERSON: It’s good to be talking to you today, Linda Reynolds - why is Australia joining this international mission in the Gulf?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well firstly, Oly, Australia has an enduring interest in the freedom of navigation and also the safe passage of marine trade through all international waters, and freedom of navigation is a fundamental right for all states under international law. And Oly, we’ve been contributing to the freedom of navigation in the Middle East for a very long time - in fact we’ve had a near continuous maritime presence in the Middle East since the 1990s, so this is nothing new for Australia.
OLIVER PETERSON: Alright. What’s going to be committed, Minister?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, what we have agreed to contribute is three elements from the ADF. First of all, is we’re sending over shortly a contingent of specialist planners to work with the new joint force headquarters to finalise arrangements of how this operation will work. So that’s the first element. The second element is we have a P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft which we will deploy a bit later this year and provide what we call overwatch support to look at vessels to make sure that they are safely transiting through the Straits. And the third element is that in January next year, we will be deploying a frigate for a six-month rotation in support of this operation.
OLIVER PETERSON: And the purpose of the operation, Minister, and how many personnel will be joining the mission?
LINDA REYNOLDS: We are still working out those final details in terms of how many personnel, but it will most likely be around about the 200 mark that will be deployed. Oly, this is a modest but meaningful contribution and it is very strictly time limited. So the idea and the intent of this is to de-escalate the rising tensions in the Gulf region. So in effect what we’re doing and what we’re seeking to do is to make ourselves redundant.
OLIVER PETERSON: Australia’s decision to join this mission, was that made due to the request of the United States Government?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, we have had a couple of requests. First of all, the United States Government made a request, and also the United Kingdom made a request for us to join this international coalition. So, it will be a joint headquarters. There’s four countries now that have committed to this operation and we will be talking to like minded partners over the coming days and weeks because we think it’s in the national interest - to get involved in this operation to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf and to ensure that all civilian shipping through the Straits of Hormuz is safe and secure.
OLIVER PETERSON: Now, what happens if Iran tries to seize an oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, the first thing I would say is this is not about any individual country; this is about ensuring the safety and security of all vessels transiting through the Straits and the whole operation is designed to de-escalate tensions and prevent further incidences.
OLIVER PETERSON: But what would Australia actually do if Iran, as I say, tries to seize an oil tanker? How would we engage?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, our Defence Forces are well trained, and they are well prepared for a variety of contingencies. As I’ve said, this is not new, and in fact this will be the 68th deployment of a Royal Australian Naval vessel into the Middle East, and so they are well trained, and well practiced in all of these contingencies.
OLIVER PETERSON: Do you imagine an Australian vessel ever boarding an Iran vessel to stop, perhaps, the seizure of an oil tanker trying to move through the Gulf?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Oly, that is a complete hypothetical. And as I’ve said, this is not about any particular nation. It is about deterring that sort of behaviour from anybody to make sure that all the vessels who transit through the Straits of Hormuz are safe and secure.
OLIVER PETERSON: So this is more of a monitoring mission.
LINDA REYNOLDS: It is a protection mission. It’s about deterrence, and it’s about ensuring that all of the vessels – including all of the vessels that supply large components of Australia’s oil reserves and stocks get here safely. What Australians might not know is that 16 per cent of our crude oil, and also nearly 30 per cent of our refined oil, passes through the Straits of Hormuz. Now, this is the lifeblood for our nation. So it’s clearly in our interest to make sure that all vessels transit through the Straits unimpeded.
OLIVER PETERSON: My guest is the Defence Minister Linda Reynolds. Now, you’re off to Papua New Guinea tomorrow. How would you describe our relationship at the moment with our Pacific neighbours? Not just the PNG, but our friends as well in Fiji in relation to last week’s Pacific Islands Forum. There seems to be a little bit of an underlying tension at the moment with some of our neighbours, Minister.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Oly, you’re absolutely right. I am heading up to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands for a week’s visit with my counterparts to have a look at the joint exercises that we are doing both in Papua New Guinea and also in the Solomon Islands. So I can only speak for my experience, and I have a very close working relationship with the Papua New Guinean and the Solomon Islands ministers, and I’m very much looking forward to listening and learning more with our partners.
OLIVER PETERSON: We had a suggestion a little earlier today from China that we start to reflect on how we treat our Pacific neighbours after the climate change fallout at that Pacific Islands Forum last week; are you worried about, as I say, the relationship between Australia and our Pacific Island neighbours?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Not at all Oly. From my perspective, and certainly from a defence perspective, we have very close and longstanding relationships with partners right across Indo-Pacific region, and we are a natural partner for islands in the Pacific, and also in the Indo part of the Indo-Pacific. So, from my perspective, we enjoy very close relationships across the region.
OLIVER PETERSON: The Fijian Prime Minister describes some of our Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comments as insulting and condescending. How would you respond to him?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, that’s not an issue for me as Defence Minister. But all I can say is that with the Fijian military, and military right across our region, we enjoy very close and longstanding relationships – including the gifting of 21 Pacific Patrol Boats, which I’m very proud to note are made in Western Australia by that great company Austal. So, we do enjoy very close working relationships and friendships right across the region.
OLIVER PETERSON: And sometimes are these close relationships and friendships boil over into a few frustrations? Is it just a little bit of shoulder nudging at the moment, Minister?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Oly, all bilateral relationships globally go through issues from time to time. And the real test of any relationship and any nation is how you deal with those issues, and Australia has always faced issues with many countries in our region and globally, but again, from my perspective in the Defence portfolio, we enjoy very close and very warm relationships right across the region.
OLIVER PETERSON: Minister, I appreciate your time on Perth Live this afternoon, thank you very much.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Thanks Oly.