Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TOPICS: Australia-United Kingdom Ministerial Consultations
KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister Stephen Smith joins me now from the AUKMIN talks. Minister, it's a similar question to what I asked William Hague just a moment ago. Now, you focus on the 2014 handover in Afghanistan. The British Prime Minister has said, though, that British troops could start withdrawing as early as this year. Do you deny there's any sort of discrepancy there at all or can you foresee Australian troops also winding back this year or next?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, on the British position, the British Prime Minister and, indeed, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary today have made it absolutely clear, as they have in the past, that like Australia, like the United States, the United Kingdom is absolutely committed to the 2014 transition date. So we want to put the Afghan Security Forces in a position of taking care of responsibility and leadership for security matters.
But just as President Obama has said, depending on conditions, it's entirely possible that there may be some drawdown from 2011 to 2014. Now, that'll be, to use the phrase, conditions-based. It'll entirely depend upon circumstances on the ground, and that will vary province by province and, indeed, potentially area by area.
So I've made the point before that there's no inconsistency with thecommitment that the International Security Assistance Force and NATO has for a transition by the end of 2014. Australia thinks we're on track for that. There's no inconsistency with that with the notion that there might be variations or even drawdowns on particular force levels.
In Australia's case, as the Prime Minister and I and the Foreign Minister made it clear during the Parliamentary debate, we believe we're on track for that transition. But we also envisage that after the transition to Afghan-led responsibility in Uruzgan Province, there may well be other things for us to do as, for example, we did in Iraq, in an overwatch arrangement or, indeed, ongoing specialist training, and certainly, a long-term development assistance, civilian assistance, capacity building role. And the international community at the Lisbon Conference of NATO and ISAF at the end of last year has also made that clear.
KIERAN GILBERT: So if conditions are appropriate, is there a possibility that like the British, Australian troops can start a drawdown as early as this year?
STEPHEN SMITH: We don't envisage that because we believe, on the assessment of the Chief of the Defence Force and the assessment of our senior officers on the ground in Uruzgan Province, that we have the appropriate resources for the task in hand, for the job in hand.
So we've currently got, rule of thumb, about 1550 doing the mentoring and training role. But as we are successful in completing that mentoring and training role, then the numbers of personnel assigned to that mentoring and training role will, of course, reduce. But we don't envisage or anticipate any drawdown in 2011. We have a job in hand. We believe we've got the appropriate resources to do it.
And in addition to that, we also have a lot of confidence in the political and military strategy that we now have that was reaffirmed by the NATO-ISAF Conference in Lisbon at the end of last year. And we also believe that we've got the personnel on the ground to implement that and see it through. We, of course, have a lot of confidence in General Petraeus; a lot of confidence in Ambassador Sedwill, the civil representative; and also a lot of confidence in the UN representative, Stefan De Mistura.
And of course, we have absolute confidence in our own personnel, whether they're in International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul with General Petraeus, or whether they're on the ground in Uruzgan Province.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, you spoke about a potential for greater cooperation between the Australian and British militaries through procurement and capacity sharing. What exactly are you talking about? For example, are there any vessels that are being decommissioned by the Royal Navy that the Australian Navy might pick up?
STEPHEN SMITH: A couple of things. Firstly, we live in an age now where whether it's Australia, whether it's the United Kingdom, whether it's the United States, whether it's Canada, whether it's New Zealand, what some people refer to as the old days where Defence or the military could acquire hardware and Governments would pay without fear or favour, we now live in an era of fiscal restraint and fiscal responsibility.
So we operate now within due parameters, and that's applied in Australia since our Defence 2009 White Paper and our Force 2030 and the Strategic Reform Program, and more recently in the United Kingdom when the Cameron Government came to office and Liam Fox became the Defence Secretary, the United Kingdom engaged in its own Defence and security review.
So what we're looking at is the possibility of some of our projects being interoperable, being complementary. And tomorrow, for example, I'm going to Adelaide with Defence Secretary Fox. Adelaide, of course, is a centre of Defence industry, and we'll be looking at not just some of our Defence science and technology operations, but also looking at some Defence industry.
So we will pursue the issue as to whether we can do projects together, whether we can share science, whether we can engage in military hardware projects that are interoperable and work both for Australia and the United Kingdom. And as you say, the United Kingdom has recently decommissioned some of its naval vessels. That is one thing that I will have a conversation with Liam Fox about. There is a prospect that that may be of some interest to Australia, but we'll take that step-by-step.
KIERAN GILBERT: On the issue of China, was there any sort of view discussed as to whether or not China's being transparent about its military build-up?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well obviously we had a conversation about what the agenda, if you like, described as the changing dynamic in Asia. It's not, of course, just the rise of China. It's the rise of India. It's the growth of the ASEAN economies combined, the ongoing influence of the United States. And some people assume that just because China is on the rise, the United States will somehow magically disappear. But Australia has made it clear to China both publicly and privately that as a country's economy grows, we understand and appreciate that a country's military assets might grow as well. But we do believe there's a need for transparency on military strategy. And that is one point that we make to China. China, of course, publishes its own White Paper, its Defence White Paper, on a regular basis.
But in addition to that, we believe it's important that we engage with China, not just bilaterally but also through the relevant so-called regional architecture. And on the foreign policy front, of course, that will now occur through the East Asia Summit, with the addition to the East Asia Summit of the United States and Russia.
But on the Defence side, in Hanoi at the end of last year, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus, the so-called ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus Meeting, was held for the first time, which is essentially Defence Ministers meeting on that expanded East Asia Summit. So US Secretary Gates was there, as was I and the other ASEAN Defence Ministers.
So that regional architecture is a very good thing to have sensible conversations with China. And China's activities in the South and East China Seas were topics of conversation at that so-called ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus Meeting.
But significantly, of course, is the bilateral relationship between the United States and China. And we welcome very much the fact that Defense Secretary Bob Gates was in China recently on military to military and Defence talks. And also, of course, we're looking forward to the President of China's visit to the United States in the very near future.
KIERAN GILBERT: Stephen Smith, thanks very much for your time today. Busy day for you. I appreciate it.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Kieran. Thanks very much.
Printer Friendly Version