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FRAN KELLY: You're listening to RN Breakfast. We'll bring you those stories this morning but first we take you to Washington where top-level ministerial talks have just wrapped up with China high on the agenda. Australia has signed a new defence cooperation agreement with the United States focused on the Indo-Pacific. Defence Minister Linda Reynolds joins us from those AUSMIN talks now. Minister, thank you very much for joining us.
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: This new agreement will drive a decade of defence cooperation with the US and the Indo-Pacific. Will it include freedom of navigation operations to directly challenge China's claims over disputed territories such as the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well, Fran, there's a couple of issues there. I will deal with the freedom of navigation first. Yes, we did discuss the importance of freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea region and Australia has, for many decades, maintained a robust program of international engagement and we do routinely transit through the region. We remain committed to upholding the freedom of navigation and overflight in the region. In fact, just last week we had an ADF joint task group transiting through the South China Sea on its way to RIMPAC in Hawaii and they did a trilateral transit through the Philippine Seas with the United States and with Japan. So yes, we did discuss it and yes, we did agree that we will continue doing so.
FRAN KELLY: Were you asked specifically by Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper to join the US sail pass within that 12 nautical mile zone?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: As I said, it was discussed but our approach does remain consistent. We will continue to exercise the rights under international law for freedom of navigation and overflight and we continue to do so during the COVID pandemic.
FRAN KELLY: Sorry, Minister, to labour this, but does that mean Australia will not shift its position, will not engage in freedom of navigation operations within that 12-mile zone?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Fran, I don't think any Australian would expect me to discuss operational details with you on the radio but we did have a very productive discussion about this and we have agreed that we will continue to do bilateral transits with the United States, unilateral transits and also, as I've said, with many other nations.
FRAN KELLY: But you're leaving it on the table, as Richard Marles, the Shadow Minister told us yesterday, all options should be on the table. That's on the table, too?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Fran, as I've said, I won't be discussing operational details with you on air today.
FRAN KELLY: Australia will engage in other joint military exercises, clearly. You cited the need to "deter malign behaviour". Are you talking about China?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well, we're talking about - we did talk about China, as you would expect, but, Fran, AUSMIN at its heart is really all about the alignment of broad perspectives of Australia and the United States on global and regional issues. Of course, as I said, that included China. But it is important to also recognise that it isn't just a matter of the United States or, in fact, anybody else saying that this is a position we need to take on China or any other nation. We do have our own policy on China and also our own approach to managing our relationships with it. But, again, it is always in Australia's best interest.
FRAN KELLY: In these talks, did you discuss Chinese retribution, either militarily or on the trade front, where we already know Beijing is happy to punish Australian exporters. Did you discuss this?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: We did have a very deep discussion on many of the issues that you raised but, again, we did make it clear that we have always and we continue to welcome China playing a role as a responsible regional power. We do recognise that strategic competition between the US and China is increasing and that we are calling out the bad and maligned behaviour that we are seeing exhibited by China because we expect, as we expect of ourselves to be responsible regional players, we also expect China and all other nations engaging in our region to do so as well.
FRAN KELLY: If that bad and maligned behaviour on the part of China, as you just mentioned, continues, that strategic competition between the US and China did you discuss it evolving into some kind of military competition or military confrontation?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Look, Fran, we are nowhere near military confrontation but it is very clear that the strategic tensions are increasing but we had a look at ways of de-escalating that because obviously nobody wants things to escalate any further. So really it is all about de-escalation and it is also about calling out bad behaviour where we see it and supporting not only our own sovereignty and the protection of everything from cyber intrusions to foreign interference in our own nation, but also assisting nations in our region across the Indo-Pacific to defend their own sovereignty as well.
FRAN KELLY: What will that de-escalation look like? Will it look like involving more countries from the Indo-Pacific in exercises? What is the key to de-escalation as discussed?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: There's many aspects to that but we certainly did discuss doing more operations and activities in the region not only bilaterally but, again, with Japan, and with other regional partners to do things together and to support each other. Again, in accordance with international law.
FRAN KELLY: We know that China is finally tuned to actions that we take. Mark Esper was asked about basing intermediate ballistic missiles on Australian soil. He didn't rule it out. What about the Australian Government? Are you ruling it out? Was it discussed?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: No, it wasn't discussed and no, it is not on the table.
FRAN KELLY: Also there was agreement, I understand, to develop hypersonic weapons and space-based weaponry. When will that work start and how do you see China responding to that? What's the point - what's that aimed at?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well, Fran, Australia and the United States have worked together for many years in the science and technology and innovation space and today we had a very rich discussion on how we can do more bilateral collaboration in hypersonics, in integrated air and missile defence, electronic undersea warfare, space, cyber and a range of other technologies because there is only an upside to both of us working together and harnessing our collective capabilities to develop new technologies and to develop defences against emerging technologies.
FRAN KELLY: You clearly see a dangerous world ahead?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well, I think it's very clear that our world is becoming less stable, as the Prime Minister said when we - only two weeks ago - launched the defence strategic update, that there is increasing geostrategic competition and that's happening at the same time that the world is going through an economic crisis and a health crisis as well. So it is self-evident that things are less secure and less stable which is why we have taken in the Defence Strategic Update such a clear-eyed view of our strategic environment and what we need to do to best protect Australians and to act in our sovereign interest.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, I know your time is - sorry, go on, I beg your pardon, Minister.
MINISTER REYNOLDS: No, I was just going to say but fortunately a lot of those interests that we've identified ourselves also still align very closely with our alliance with the United States and that was really at the heart of our two days of discussion, which is evidenced in a very comprehensive statement that we've agreed on today and work plan.
FRAN KELLY: Okay, I know your time is tight so just finally, in terms of alignment, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wants Australia to join with the US in standing up to what he call "the tyranny of the Chinese Communist Party". He's been talking about this recently. And he's warned, "If the free world doesn't change Communist China, Communist China will change us." In terms of alignment, do you feel in alignment with that kind of rhetoric from Mike Pompeo and the US?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Look, as I've said, AUSMIN is all about the alignment of our perspectives and particularly in recent times on China. And it isn't a matter of the US dictating to us to think the way or to speak the way that they do, but we have our own policy on China and we were very clear in articulating that during AUSMIN. But on our strategic issues, and our strategic values and objectives, we are still very closely aligned with the United States but not completely aligned. And that's as it should be, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: And did you seek any assurances from Mike Pompeo or Mark Esper that the trade deal between the US and China won't hurt Australian agricultural exports?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: That is really an issue between the United States and China in terms of their trade arrangements.
FRAN KELLY: We don't want to be collateral damage, do we?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: No, of course we don't but, again, in terms of my discussions, they were focused on our defence alliance and as you said at the beginning, we've signed a new ten-year agreement on how we can take our force posture, not only in Australia but also in the region together, building on the first very successful ten years that we've had with the United States.
FRAN KELLY: Linda Reynolds, thank you very much for joining us.
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Thank you, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Defence Minister Linda Reynolds joining us there from Washington.