CHRIS SMITH: Well let's deal with this situation with Indonesia, which has suspended military cooperation with Australia because one of its officers felt insulted while training with our special force troops in Perth. Now, the decision has been described by The Australian newspaper's foreign editor Greg Sheridan as surely the weirdest, most mysterious suspension of military cooperation between Canberra and Jakarta in the long-storied history of this often tempestuous relationship. I would describe it this way: what a sensitive overreaction.
Now, Indonesia is said to have withdrawn its troops in Australia during December after the discovery of offensive teaching materials at a training school in Perth. However, President Joko Widodo has distanced himself from the furore last night, insisting that the decision had not been made by him. If the president isn't making these major decisions, who is?
Defence Minister Marise Payne released a statement last night confirming Indonesia had suspended cooperation, meaning some interaction between the countries had been postponed until the matter is resolved. The Indonesians are calling it a technical problem. Love the diplomacy.
The Defence Minister is on the line right now. Marise Payne thank you very much for your time and happy new year to you.
MARISE PAYNE: Good morning Chris, and happy new year to you.
CHRIS SMITH: Yeah, I described this as a sensitive overreaction. Is that what you see it as?
MARISE PAYNE: Well Chris, I think it is important to take seriously the concerns of our counterparts in the region if they raise them with us. That's what we've done, and in examining those we'll ensure that we address any concerns appropriately and make sure we can resume regular activities as soon as possible.
CHRIS SMITH: Okay, so let's go back on what happened, though. In November, an Indonesian officer in one of our training facilities in WA made a complaint about seeing posters which referenced West Papua, an Indonesian province trying to seek independence from Jakarta. It's a very sensitive point, West Papua, with the Indonesians. The officer also felt uneasy at some topics discussed in class, including how the Indonesian military was involved in war crimes in the '60s, obviously talking about East Timor. So the bloke was very uncomfortable about his own country's history, and that prompts Indonesia to pull its troops out of training in Australia. It's a massive dummy spit, isn't it?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, I'm not intending to canvas the actual material that was available because that is part of an inquiry which the Chief of Army has instituted, which is near to finalisation as I've noted.
CHRIS SMITH: But didn't the Chief of Army apologise several days later?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, he expressed his concerns and his regret that there had been offence taken and said that he would institute an inquiry. That's an entirely appropriate measure to take military to military and country to country.
CHRIS SMITH: So are the posters inappropriate or are they appropriate?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, we are working with our counterparts, and it doesn't really matter who they are, it could be Indonesia, it could be any other country within the region and more broadly. I think that we should ensure that the material that we use is not offensive or insulting to those nations.
CHRIS SMITH: So were the posters offensive or not?
MARISE PAYNE: Well Chris, that is part of an inquiry which the army is undertaking, and I think both you and I would say we should not prejudge the outcomes of an inquiry of that nature.
CHRIS SMITH: Have you seen the posters?
MARISE PAYNE: No I haven't.
CHRIS SMITH: Did they break any laws, do you know?
MARISE PAYNE: I would presume they don't break any laws. I know that the members of the ADF are meticulous in the way they go about their work in that regard, and I would presume they don't break any laws.
CHRIS SMITH: So this reminds me of 18C, where if you don't break any laws that's fine, but if you upset someone or they think that they are upset all hell breaks loose, and we've seen that in Australia this year. Now we've got it with the Indonesians. Gee they're a sensitive bunch aren't they?
MARISE PAYNE: Well Chris, I think- I would reiterate what I said just a moment ago, which is that if we are engaged in training with counterparts, and no matter what country they come from, in our region and more broadly, we would expect a similar sort of treatment. That is to say that we would ensure the material that we use is appropriate, that we would not offend the nations with which we are working.
CHRIS SMITH: Australia would never pull out of military operations based on something that was taught in a training facility in Jakarta.
MARISE PAYNE: Well that may be the case and that may be your view, but I don't think that means that we should not be appropriately measured in the approach that we take.
CHRIS SMITH: Why do we have to suck up to the Indonesians so often? Why are they in charge of the relationship?
MARISE PAYNE: They're not in charge of the relationship at all. In fact we have an important relationship, but it is a cooperative one. We have defence industry engagements; for example we've recently signed a collaboration agreement to help the TNI develop a mine-resistant armoured vehicle which is based on our fabulous Australian Bushmaster. We work strongly in bilateral maritime cooperation. We have important relationships in cyber security, and really importantly, and particularly in this region, we work very closely together and continue to do so on addressing this threat of returning foreign fighters from the Middle East. Without doing that, without the sort of sharing of information between ourselves about those processes – which are happening literally as we speak around the region; we've seen threats both here in Australia and more broadly in the region – without that, then we face a much more insecure environment.
CHRIS SMITH: Yeah, sure.
MARISE PAYNE: So those aspects are very, very important.
CHRIS SMITH: Yeah, I understand, but we give them $366 million in foreign aid – that was the last financial year. They ignored us when we complained about the two Australian citizens being executed in 2015. It seems to be a one-way relationship. However, I won't get anything from you on that. How many Indonesian troops are we talking about being told to come home?
MARISE PAYNE: There was a relatively small number in the class, I think. Although that did occur in late November, I'd have to say that in December of this year the Indonesian Chief of the Air Force came to Australia for a counterpart visit, so that activity continued. We both chair together the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Expert Working Group on peacekeeping operations. Our co-chair of that went to Indonesia in late December for meetings with the TNI regarding work as co-chairs of that particular group. So there are certainly activities continuing, there are some that have been suspended, and I am concerned that we address this particular issue and return to the level of cooperation that we've previously experienced as soon as we can.
CHRIS SMITH: So what's the timeline on that, do you think?
MARISE PAYNE: Well I understand from the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, that the army inquiry is close to being finalised, that once that is done we'll advise our counterparts and we'll go from there. So I would have thought not too far away.
CHRIS SMITH: When we have these military cooperations, and they're at a Perth training facility, for instance, do they pay their way through that facility or is it picked up by the Defence Force?
MARISE PAYNE: It's part of our usual- it's part of business as usual for us.
CHRIS SMITH: [Interrupts] In addition to our foreign aid budget or included in our foreign aid budget?
MARISE PAYNE: It would not be included in the foreign aid budget …
CHRIS SMITH: [Interrupts] In your budget, in the Defence Force budget then?
MARISE PAYNE: Broadly speaking in the Defence budget, and similarly when we participate in activities in counterpart nations usually that's part of the process …
CHRIS SMITH: [Interrupts] So the Indonesians pick up the tab when we go to Indonesia to train?
MARISE PAYNE: I believe so, yes.
CHRIS SMITH: Why haven't you seen the poster? If this is central to military cooperation coming to a halt, I would've thought the Defence Minister needs to see what instigated this.
MARISE PAYNE: Well Chris, in the military to military engagement I have allowed the appropriate army inquiry to take its course. I will wait for the outcomes of that, which is an entirely appropriate thing to do. I don't think that the political level interfering in the army inquiry is an appropriate thing to do at all. I will wait for that inquiry to conclude and take it from there.
CHRIS SMITH: Okay. I wanted to turn to something else. High-powered security talks with Japan had to be postponed last month because of, understandably, you had some surgery – by the way, how is your recovery?
MARISE PAYNE: It's very good, thank you very much.
CHRIS SMITH: Okay. When are you getting back to Tokyo?
MARISE PAYNE: Well Foreign Minister Bishop and I are looking to organise a meeting in hopefully February of this year.
CHRIS SMITH: Are they crucial talks?
MARISE PAYNE: They are very important talks. They're a bilateral two plus two, which we have regularly. As soon as the new Defence Minister, Tomomi Inada, was appointed last year I went to Japan and met with her in a one-on-one, which was a very fruitful meeting. The two plus two is an annual follow up which we have regularly, and I'm looking forward to doing it as soon as we can.
CHRIS SMITH: Maybe while you're there you could pop over to Beijing and talk to the Communist Party about the South China Sea.
MARISE PAYNE: Thank you very much for that advice, Chris.
CHRIS SMITH: Thank you very much for your time this morning.
MARISE PAYNE: Pleasure to talk to you.
CHRIS SMITH: Okay, federal Defence Minister Marise Payne.