Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
LINDA MOTTRAM: Are all the players at the ASEAN-Plus Defence Ministers' Meeting equally willing to talk about and work on resolutions to challenges?
STEPHEN SMITH: If they weren't they wouldn't be in the room. I think this has been a deeply significant development. It sees Defence Ministers from the Asia Pacific meeting, effectively, in the same format as the proposed expanded East Asia Summit, in other words, the inclusion of the United States and Russia to the East Asia Summit.
So from Australia's perspective, we have all of the key players from our region, from the Asia Pacific, in the same room at the same time having a conversation about peace and stability and security in our region.
But also, importantly, this is a forum where we are expecting to see practical outcomes. And that's a very good thing. And when you combine Defence Ministers' Meeting in that format with an expanded East Asia Summit where Prime Ministers and Presidents and Foreign Ministers also meet, this is singularly, in our view, a very important development for Australia and a very positive development for the region.
LINDA MOTTRAM: Well, since you've raised that issue, I was going to ask you does that parallel development of expanding the Defence Ministers' Meeting and the expanded East Asia Summit actually answer the question that Kevin Rudd raised as Prime Minister, which is about regional architecture being appropriate for the time?
STEPHEN SMITH: It certainly makes sure that all of the key players are in the same room at the same time, able to have a conversation both about prosperity, about economic and trade matters and prosperity in the region, and also about peace, stability and security. So it's a deeply significant development, in Australia's view.
LINDA MOTTRAM: When you spoke in Hanoi at the meeting, you mentioned unresolved territorial disputes, and that's clearly the hot headline issue, if you like, in the region strategically. Of course, China's territorial claim in the South China Sea is causing particular regional angst. Do you want to see that issue multilateralised and do you think that China is willing to do that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Australia's position on territorial disputes, whether they're maritime disputes or other disputes, but let me deal with maritime disputes, whether they're in our part of the world or elsewhere, is of longstanding and well known. We would want to see maritime disputes resolved peacefully and amicably between the parties concerned. It doesn't necessarily mean there are two parties; sometimes there are more. But where there is such a dispute, we want to see it resolved peacefully amongst the parties concerned and we want it resolved, of course, consistently with international law, with the law of the sea.
When it comes to any such issues within our region, I made it clear yesterday that we believe that the proposed ASEAN code of conduct for dealing with these matters is a very good starting point.
We don't use the phrase multilateralising these issues. Clearly, when there are some maritime issues or disputes, they do have the potential to cause concern or tension more generally, and that's why one of the hallmarks that Australia has applied is not just these matters being settled amicably by the parties consistent with international law, but also in a way which maintains or enhances stability. And so that's our approach and I expressed that yesterday.
I thought it was a very good feature of yesterday's meeting that a range of countries referred to this issue but did so in a sensible way in which it was quite clear that the mood of the meeting, the mood of the countries concerned, is to seek to resolve these issues in a positive and constructive way.
LINDA MOTTRAM: I'm just wondering whether China actually discussed that issue openly and whether there's any sense that any countries, I guess more broadly, required any particular conditions for joining up to this meeting. I mean, one wonders if there were any political compromises to get this to happen.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, I speak on behalf of Australia. I'm not proposing to put words into the mouths of others. But this was an issue which was referred to by a range of countries and it was done in a positive and constructive way. That's the first point.
Secondly, so far as Australia is concerned, and I'm sure it applies generally and broadly, there were no preconditions for this. The establishment of ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting in a format which includes dialogue partners, the eight dialogue partners, is a very positive initiative. Of course when people, when nations, when Ministers attend that forum they'll put a national view. So, so far as we're concerned, not only are there no preconditions, it is a very important development which we believe adds very considerable potential to ensuring that into the future stability, peace and security remains as a constant thematic.
LINDA MOTTRAM: I just want to go back to the code of conduct in the South China Sea, which is, of course, non-binding. Eight years on, now that that issue, you know, with that issue continuing to run and be difficult, does that code of conduct need to be made legally binding, in your view?
STEPHEN SMITH: We've said that we regard the code of conduct as a very good starting point for consideration of the issue within our regional context, within the ASEAN and the ASEAN-Plus context.
But I think, irrespective of the detail of a code of conduct or any proposed code of conduct, what is always required in these issues is a positive and constructive approach; an approach which sees these issues resolved consistently with international law, with the law of the sea, and in a way which doesn't cause any undue tension within a particular area or a particular region. They're the parameters or the hallmarks that Australia has outlined, and I made that very clear yesterday.
LINDA MOTTRAM: And Australia has joined with Malaysia as co-chair of one of the working groups that's emerged out of this meeting, the Maritime Security Working Group. How will that work?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's a very good development that we've got five expert working groups. As you correctly say, Australia and Malaysia have effectively volunteered to co-chair the Maritime Security Expert Working Group. China and Vietnam have agreed to chair the expert working group on disaster relief and disaster relief management. The expert working committees will, at officials level, meet again in Hanoi in December of this year to set the scene for their ongoing work. It's part of the ongoing work of the Defence Ministers Plus arrangement. Next year, of course, you'll have a meeting of senior officials. Ministers won't meet every year.
But we're a maritime nation, we're an island continent and so it's very important to Australia's national interest, maritime security, but it's also important to regional and international interests, rights of free passage, to enable trade and commerce to be effected. We have, in the last few years, seen an emerging difficulty so far as international piracy is concerned.
So it puts Australia in a very good position to be able to not just pursue a general issue which is of significant importance to our economic, strategic and security interests, but also very important regionally.
LINDA MOTTRAM: Okay. And now while I've got you Minister, the Opposition says the Government has neglected the legal defence of the three Australian soldiers charged over civilian deaths in Afghanistan. What is your response to that?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think these are unfortunate comments from Mr Abbott. We have a system which was introduced by the Howard Government with the support of the Labor Party, which ensured that if prosecutions were brought against members of the Defence forces, that it would be done by an independent objective impartial military prosecutor.
The legislation was introduced by the Howard Government, in which Mr Abbott was a Cabinet Minister. The Military Prosecutor was appointed by the Howard Government. And so the processes that we now see unfolding are as a result of legislation introduced by a Government of which Mr Abbott was a member and which had the support of the now Government.
I think those comments are unfortunate and regrettable, and I welcome the comments from the Shadow Minister for Defence Science, Technology and Personnel, Mr Robert, this morning putting this in a better context.
More generally, I've made the point that because we have an independent legal and judicial process occurring, it's inappropriate for me or the Prime Minister or, frankly, anyone else to reflect upon the particular incident, to reflect upon any of the merits of the case which might predetermine an outcome.
What is also very important is that I am advised very strongly by the Chief of the Defence Force that every assistance, legal and other assistance, will be provided to the three personnel concerned. The Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Army will ensure that they have access to every legal assistance, but also every support because, clearly, for them it is a very difficult time. And that's appropriate.
But what is occurring now is precisely as a result of legislation introduced by the Howard Government, in which Mr Abbott was a Minister.
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