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LEIGH SALES: Minister, welcome to 7.30.
LINDA REYNOLDS: It’s great to be with you, Leigh.
LEIGH SALES: You said today that joining this mission is about de-escalating tension in the region. Doesn’t adding military assets and personnel there threaten to do the exact opposite?
LINDA REYNOLDS: No, it does not. As I said this morning, this operation is designed to do itself out of business essentially. It is designed to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf, and it is all about focusing on freedom of navigation through the Straits of Hormuz. Our contribution is modest, it’s important, but it is time limited.
LEIGH SALES: You haven’t addressed my central point though, which is putting military assets and personnel into a region where tensions are already high is something that surely could inflame tensions further.
LINDA REYNOLDS: No. It’s all about deterrence, and it’s about ensuring the safety and security of all vessels that are transiting through the Straits of Hormuz. This is something that is not new, Leigh, for the Australian Defence Force. In fact, the Royal Australian Navy has had 67, shortly to be 68, deployments of similar style in the Middle East. So this is something that we have done since the 1990s and we are very well-equipped and well-trained to do it and we believe it will de-escalate tensions in the region.
LEIGH SALES: The relationship between the US and Iran is particularly tense at the moment. Isn’t there a risk here of some kind of miscalculation that sparks a major crisis in the Middle East, in which Australia would now find itself a player?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Leigh, this is not designed against any particular state or non-state actor. This is a freedom of navigation operation, an exercise, to ensure that all vessels that transit through the Strait of Hormuz can do so safely and securely. So, as I’ve said, it is designed to de-escalate tensions and it is not, in any way, designed against or for any particular nation or any non-state actor, in fact, who operates in the region.
LEIGH SALES: Last year, President Trump withdrew the US from an international agreement that eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for it curtailing its nuclear activities. Is Australia still on board with that agreement? Because we were when it was signed in 2015.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Today’s decision, Leigh, in no way changes Australia’s foreign policy position on the issue that you raised. This is-
[Interrupts] And are we still a party to that agreement?
LINDA REYNOLDS: So, yes. This has not changed. This has not changed, in any way, our current foreign policy commitments in that area. So this is specifically designed, as I said, in a modest but important way to ensure freedom of navigation through these important international waters.
LEIGH SALES: But how is it consistent for Australia to be signed up to that multilateral 2015 process, yet be lining up with this US-led mission in the region?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, this is not just a US mission. This is an international mission. We will now be talking to other likeminded partners who also value the international rule of law, particularly maritime law, and encourage others to consider joining into this international effort. So, this is very clearly and very specifically focused on ensuring the safe transit of all vessels through the Straits of Hormuz.
LEIGH SALES: But is there not a conflict here where we are going with the US on this mission but at the same time, we are at a party to an agreement which is meant to be easing sanctions on Iran? The US’ actions on Iran currently are aiming to do the exact opposite.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Leigh, the two are not related, and as I’ve said, our foreign policy circumstances, in relation to that particular issue, in relation to Iran, have not changed. This is-
LEIGH SALES: [Interrupts] But Minister- sorry, Minister, to cut you off…
LINDA REYNOLDS: [Talks over] Leigh, this is not…
LEIGH SALES: [Talks over] Now sorry to cut you off. But you say they’re not linked but actions in foreign affairs always take place in a context.
LINDA REYNOLDS: This is designed very specifically to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf. It is designed very carefully – our contribution is designed very carefully in a time limited way, to ensure a safe passage of our vessels through the Straits of Hormuz. It is absolutely not designed for any particular state or non-state actor.
LEIGH SALES: If Australia’s backing the US in this operation on the grounds that we support freedom of navigation around the globe, isn’t it logical that Australia would also back the US on any future freedom of navigation military operation in the South China Sea?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well Leigh, Australia always considers our own national interests as our first priority, and we have done that in this case. We have taken nearly three weeks to carefully consider this particular mission, and we have decided that it is clearly in our nation’s interest to do so – one, as a good international citizen, and two, because 30 per cent of our refined crude oil transits through the Strait of Hormuz. So-
LEIGH SALES: [Interrupts] Wouldn’t it set a precedent though for any sort of exchange between the US and China in the South China Sea?
LINDA REYNOLDS: No. We have - again, as I have said Leigh, we have nearly 30 years’ experience in maritime security and safety operations in the Middle East. So, this is nothing new for us. It is simply and very clearly and specifically designed to protect international shipping transiting through the Straits. It is that simple, Leigh.
LEIGH SALES: This is your first interview with 7.30 as Defence Minister, so let me ask your broad views on a couple of things. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a few weeks ago about China: I think there’s a risk of many countries having seen dollar signs and economic opportunity and they didn’t adequately evaluate the security risks that came alongside that. Do you consider that Australia has its eyes significantly open to the strategic threat that China may pose?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well Leigh, Australia enjoys a very close working relationship with China. We operate under a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and also now a free trade agreement. It is a relationship that is mutually beneficial to both nations. Of course, like any bilateral relationship, there are tensions and issues from time to time, but the real test of any government and any Australian government is how you deal with those issues when they come up. Of course in relation to any relationship we have with any other country, we always carefully consider national security implications, but we have always worked through those with China, and many other countries that we deal with.
LEIGH SALES: Do you share the US view that China could pose a regional security threat?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well Leigh, again it’s not a choice for us between choosing between China or the United States. We enjoy-
LEIGH SALES: [Interrupts] I’m not suggesting that it is, I’m just asking if you consider China a potential regional security thread.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Leigh, all I can say is what I have already said to you; we enjoy a very close partnership with China, including an economic partnership. We do have defence to defence engagements on a regular basis with China. There are issues that we do have to manage from time to time, and of course national security is always a key consideration for us.
LEIGH SALES: As Defence Minister, what do you consider to be the most significant threat to Australia’s security?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Leigh, as a nation we face a lot of longstanding issues in terms of considerations of higher end warfare – which we exercised recently in Talisman Sabre in far north of Queensland with the United States. We have a ever-present threat of terrorism, so counter security threats both in the Middle East, and much closer to home here in our region, petrol threats. We also now face threats in terms of what we call hybrid warfare in the grey zone, things that fall sort of below that threshold of conflict. And everything from political interference to cyber security issues -
LEIGH SALES: [Interrupts] Sorry to interrupt Minister, but you’re giving me a rundown of everything that the Defence Department and Australia’s military might have to deal with. I’m asking what’s the most significant threat in your view?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well Leigh, they all are. So we have to be prepared for all of those contingencies. Cyber is an increasing area of concern for Australia and for other nations; space is increasingly contested. So there is not one single potential threat that we now have to prepare for. There are many. And the ADF has proven to be, over many decades, very adept and capable of dealing with all of those contingencies.
LEIGH SALES: Minister, good to have you on the program. Thank you very much.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Thank you. Thanks Leigh.