Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TOPICS: Queensland floods; Australia-United Kingdom Ministerial Consultations
BRIGID GLANVILLE: Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith welcomed William Hague and Liam Fox to Sydney for the third set of Ministerial talks known as AUKMIN since 2006. It's the first time the talks have been held on Australian soil. High on the agenda was cyber-security, the war in Afghanistan, changing dynamics in Asia and support contingencies for the Queensland floods. The AUKMIN talks will now become an annual event.
For more the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith joins me in the studio. Speaking of floods, the British Government has offered assistance in regards to the floods. What did they offer?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's technical assistance. A small number of their experts who are used to dealing with calculations on receiving flood waters and the aftermath of the floods. So it's technical assistance that we're very grateful to receive. We, of course, very much appreciate the Queen's donation to the flood appeal, but it is another example of the number now of offers from international colleagues, friends and partners.
In the first instance in the search and rescue and recovery - emergency stage, we've been able to essentially cater under our own resources, both Queensland civilian and Defence Force assets. But now as we move to the recovery stage we are in a position to look at accepting technical and specialist assistance from overseas. We have some New Zealand emergency workers helping out and the Prime Minister the other day indicated that President Obama had offered also some technical assistance. We're pleased to get the offer and pleased to accept it.
BRIGID GLANVILLE: And William Hague, of course, is going to Brisbane tomorrow with the Prime Minister. But in regard to the talks today, I know in the press conference earlier that both the UK and Australia committed that by 2014 that Afghan National Security Forces would be leading the country. However, today, the new head of the Australian forces, Major General Angus Campbell said it's going to be a difficult year for troops in Afghanistan and expects the Taliban to launch fresh assaults on Australian forces. Is Australia and the UK going to have to consider increasing numbers in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: A couple of things. Firstly, both Liam Fox and I, the United Kingdom Defence Secretary and I made it clear today that we do see 2011 and 2012 as being challenging years. Afghanistan remains difficult and dangerous but we do believe that we've made progress. We think after a long period we've finally got the military and political strategy and the resources in place to make progress. We expect when the fighting season resumes in March, April, May, that it will be challenging, but we do think we've made progress.
Secondly, on the transition to Afghan security and security lead responsibility, we believe in Uruzgan Province, where we are, that we are making, again, considerable progress on the training front. We've got 1550 people in our Afghanistan contingent, the vast bulk of those are involved in training, mentoring and we're on track, we think, to complete that training job by 2014.
So we certainly don't envisage any additional contribution other than from time to time looking at specialist training contributions which we have done in the past. For example, when I was last in Afghanistan we agreed to provide some specialist artillery trainers. But overall our complement will remain at about 1550.
BRIGID GLANVILLE: Okay, the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has said on the record that a political deal needs to be made with the Taliban. Was this discussed today?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I said today during our public remarks and in the course of today that Australia has always been of the view that the challenge in Afghanistan could never be properly met just by a military solution or by a force alone, there had to be both a military and a political solution. That's why we've been strongly supportive of efforts by NATO and by the International Security Assistance Force to not just get the military strategy right but also to start the process of reintegration, to start rapprochement and to start political reconciliation.
In the first instance, of course, that has to be done by the Afghan people, the Afghan Government, by President Karzai and his Government, but in the end there does have to be a political rapprochement of sorts in Afghanistan.
BRIGID GLANVILLE: So you will be negotiating with them - moderate Taliban?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's not a matter for Australia to negotiate. In the first instance it is something that needs to be done by the Afghan authorities. But as I've said on a number of occasions, we know that there are people in Afghanistan who effectively run with the Taliban because they see no other future or livelihood for themselves. They are not hard core terrorists, they are not people who, if they have an opportunity to provide for their families they would have a second thought about international terrorism.
So it's quite clearly the case that that form of reintegration at the local level can and is taking place. And at some stage there does need to be what I describe as a political rapprochement or a political settlement so far as Afghanistan is concerned, which also needs to involve Afghanistan's neighbours, it needs also to have the support of the region, otherwise ultimately it won't be successful.
BRIGID GLANVILLE: Leaving Afghanistan there for a moment, was there any discussion today about Yemen and concerns about Al Qaeda's rise in Yemen?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes there was. Whilst our objective in Afghanistan is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism again, we know that it's not the only place in the world where that danger exists.
BRIGID GLANVILLE: There's major concerns about Yemen?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yemen, Somalia and also over recent years much closer to home in our own region we, of course, know the difficulties in Indonesia, but we also appreciate very much the great work that the Indonesians have done.
So yes, we did speak about the threat in Yemen. We agreed that Australia would become a friend of Yemen - we are for example a friend of the Democratic Pakistan. We've agreed that we will enhance our engagement with the United Kingdom and with the international community so far as Yemen is concerned.
So Al Qaeda has many forms or varieties, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is one of the dangers that we see and we're prepared to play a small role in the international community's response to that as well.
BRIGID GLANVILLE: So would you increase intelligence working with the UK in that area or even consider looking at numbers, defence numbers?
STEPHEN SMITH: We're certainly not looking at a contribution on the ground if you like, but it is important to, I know, for example, the Foreign Minister is looking at what we might be able to do by way of development assistance to Yemen. But we're certainly not looking at military or defence assets on the ground but the sharing of strategy, the sharing of intelligence, articulating in the international community the dangers and the need to be supportive of Yemen and its people is part, we believe, of an appropriate role for Australia.
BRIGID GLANVILLE: Now some people have raised questions about the British wanting to revitalise the Commonwealth, and certainly this relationship - there were many remarks today it's been 20 years, they're now going to have this annual event every year. Is this the case, it could be seen by some, because the British want to retain their influence as world power shifts to the East? Why the sudden interest again?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think a number of things. Firstly to the great credit of the Cameron Government, Foreign Secretary Hague and Defence Secretary Fox, this is the first time that we've seen a Foreign or a Defence Secretary in Australia since 1994 when Douglas Hurd came. We're also very pleased they agreed so quickly in their term of office to hold AUKMIN here. And William Hague and Liam Fox both said that they're sending a number of messages – firstly, they're sending a message that they want to make sure that strong strategic partners like Australia aren't taken for granted, that friendship carries with it the need to be assiduous about a relationship, and that's a good thing.
Secondly, it also carries a signal that the United Kingdom's interests are not just restricted to Europe or the northern hemisphere and so variously, for example, Mr Hague has been in Hong Kong and Mr Fox is heading on to New Zealand having come from Malaysia. So they're sending a signal about more than just Europe.
But thirdly, your point, they also appreciate that political influence, economic influence, military influence is moving to our part of the world, the Asia Pacific, and we provide a particular view of that, just as, for example, they will provide, if you like, a northern hemisphere view of what's occurring in Europe. So we provide very much a southern hemisphere or an Asian Pacific view of what's occurring in our region. And I think they value that exchange.
BRIGID GLANVILLE: Okay. Stephen Smith we'll have to leave it there but thank you for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: My pleasure, thanks very much.
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