Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Defence Minister Stephen Smith and Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd will this morning meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates inMelbourne.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: The talks are part of the annual Australia-US Ministerial Meeting, and is set to formalise closer military links with America.
For more, the Defence Minister Stephen Smith joins us now.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Stephen Smith, good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Well, what form should closer military ties take?
STEPHEN SMITH: We just need to be careful not to get too far ahead of ourselves here. The United States are doing what they describe as a Force Posture Review, which is looking at where their forces are allocated throughout, not just our region, but throughout the world. They've got a bit more to do in that respect, so we have indicated to them, and today we'll discuss the view that they, ultimately, take on their Force Posture Review. That may well lead to greater utilisation of some of our facilities, greater training and the like. But we won't be concluding that discussion today.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Would you have a problem with that if that's what it was at the heart of it?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, in general terms, no. We have what we describe as joint facilities that we share with the United States in Australia. They also have access to some of our facilities and ports. Whether it's, for example, HMAS Stirling in Perth, or Townsville in Queensland, or Darwin, and that goes on already on a regular basis.
There's a potential, an expectation, that that might be enhanced, that that might become more regular. But, in general terms, that doesn't cause us any difficulty at all.
Greater US engagement in our region in the Asia-Pacific is a very good thing. The presence of theUnited States in the Asia-Pacific has seen effective stability since the end of World War II, and we want that to continue. So, in principle, it's a very good thing. It's consistent with our Alliance commitment with the US, so we just want to progress it in an orderly way, as do they.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: How do you see this approach playing in China?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's very important not just that Australia and China have a good, positive productive relationship, but also the United States and China. We see China on the rise and even more quickly than there was an expectation of a short period ago.
So as China emerges economically, it also enhances its military strength. We're confident that China will emerge, as the Chinese say, into a harmonious environment, or as Bob Zoellick, the former Deputy Secretary of State said, as a responsible stakeholder. But the rise of any new power can cause concern, which is why we want to see transparency and openness and also productive relationships.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But is it just possible that as part of the discussions this morning, there's actually a discussion to be had in the other direction, which is Australia - you and Kevin Rudd - informing the US of just how important China is to Australia and that when it comes to any new, you know, military alliances or understandings in this region, that we need to be mindful of that?
STEPHEN SMITH: One of the things which the United States values in our relationship is the view thatAustralia brings. We do bring our own view, our strong view about Asia, about the Asia-Pacific.
We've encouraged them to enhance their own engagement, and we've seen that with Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton, and also President Obama. We've also seen it institutionally with the United States and Russia now going into the East Asia Summit.
I was with Bob Gates in Hanoi last month where we had the first - described as ASEAN-Plus Defence Minister which, essentially, is Defence Ministers mirroring the expanded East Asia Summit.
So we've encouraged that. But the United States values the view that we bring. Whether it's a view about Afghanistan, whether it's a view about China, whether it's a view about Indonesia, whether it's a view about the Asia-Pacific.
So we put these views frankly on the table, which is one of the strengths of the AUSMIN annual Ministerial Consultations. We have frank conversations about all of these strategic issues. And just as, for example, the United States values our contribution in Afghanistan, not just in Uruzgan Province, but also our so-called embedded officers in ISAF Headquarters. So they value the strategic view which we put on the table at times like this.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: How long can Australia balance what is, obviously, a very economically productive relationship with China and its Alliance with the United States at a time when America's clearly worried about the increasing military assertiveness by China?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's not just Australia who has a strong economic relationship with the United States. China has that with the United States as well.
We've said, both privately to China and publicly, we fully expect as China grows economically, it will enhance its military capacity. But we expect that that will be done in a transparent way, transparent about strategy.
But it's also the case that China is not the only new rising power. There are a couple of things which I think people often forget in an analysis of the rise of China. One is a view that perhaps maybe the United States is going away. Well, to use an American expression, you know, they ain't going anywhere.
But we’re also seeing the rise of India. So in the course of this century, the key bilateral relationships will very much be United States and China, United States and India, and India and China. They're the, if you like, the existing super power and two rising super powers.
And it's not Australia's role to be an intermediary in those relationships, but we do have productive and good relationships with India and with China. Both those relationships are growing and, of course, we have our Alliance with the United States.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Stephen Smith, are you in any way irritated that Australia's attempts to isolate and, in a sense, sanction Fiji seem to be being undermined by US efforts to build influence there in Fiji? That's two different messages isn't it, pulling in two different directions.
STEPHEN SMITH: I'll leave detailed comment on that to Kevin Rudd, as Foreign Minister. It's more his patch than mine. But I wouldn't analyse it or characterise it in that way.
Australia's been working very closely with our neighbours in the region, through the Pacific Islands Forum to try to bring Fiji to account and to return Fiji to democracy and an election.
We've also been working very closely with the United States and the European Union and other interested members of the international community. So I don't see any parting of the ways there. We're all on the same page.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Are you suggesting it's a good cop, bad cop routine, is it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Everyone's ambition is to return Fiji to democracy. It is difficult. Commodore Bainimarama has not been responding positively to the urgings either of the Pacific Island Forum,Australia, New Zealand or the United States to return to democracy.
It is very important that that occurs because Fiji should be a pre-eminent nation in the Pacific. Its economic and social circumstances have declined significantly and we are very worried about the ongoing deleterious circumstances for their people.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: As you mentioned, Afghanistan is obviously going to be a key issue today. Are you worried that the recent Republican victory in the US Congressional elections, taking the House of Representatives, might change the US plans for a draw down by the middle of next year? Many Republicans are very keen to have US troops stay there much, much longer.
STEPHEN SMITH: We need to be careful about what the draw down envisages. We're all committed to what we describe as a transition strategy. We can't be there forever, but equally, we can't leave tomorrow. So that's why, for example, the Prime Minister and I will go to the Lisbon NATO ISAF Summit because it's at that meeting where we'll set out the plans for transition to Afghan responsibility for security matters.
In Uruzgan Province, where we are, we think we can do that over the next two to four years. The international community believes the transition can be made by 2014. And that's a strong commitment.
One of the things which is often forgotten about Afghanistan is that we've been there from day one. You know, we left and came back, and that was an error, we were distracted by Iraq. The international community was distracted by Iraq. But we've always been there with the United Nations' mandate. And despite the fact that it's difficult, it's tough, and we've been there for nearly a decade, the presence of that United Nations' mandate gives the international community legitimacy to continue the task.
So we know it's difficult, and we know that after nine and a half years, from time to time, the patience of domestic constituencies can stretch somewhat, but we don't see changed Congressional or Senate political circumstances in the United States as getting in the way of President Obama's determination to effect his strategy.
We think the strategy is right. We can't apply a military-only strategy to Afghanistan. It's got to be a political strategy as well. And that's why we've been encouraging reintegration, political reconciliation, but also enhance civilian capacity building, trying to improve the performance of the Afghan institutions so far as governance is concerned.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: A conditions-based withdrawal, that’s what Julia Gillard's been speaking of in the last little while, as opposed to a timeline based one.
STEPHEN SMITH: That's right.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Thinking about that logically, that could very possibly mean, couldn't it, that we're talking about a presence there even beyond the decade-long commitment that the Prime Minister mentioned just a couple of weeks ago?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we've tried to make it very clear, both generally, but also importantly during the Parliamentary debate, that whilst we think our training job in Uruzgan can be completed over the next two to four years, which is consistent with the international community's 2014 timetable for general transition to responsibility for security matters by the Afghan security forces themselves, we expect that after that period there will be a role for Australia, potentially an over-watch role as there was in Iraq, or embedded officers in ISAF headquarters.
But we also think, for a long time, there will be an international community presence, including Australia, in the civilian capacity-building development assistance area, building their civil institutions as well. And I expect the international community will be there for a considerable period assisting in that way.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: The Americans were unlikely to ask for an increased troop presence byAustralia, but are you anticipating a request for a change in the mix? More combat, less training?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that occurs from time to time. We've now got 1550, on average, troops there doing the mentoring and the training role, and also providing security in Uruzgan Province.
From time to time, we do get requests to change some of the alignment. When I was in Afghanistanabout four or five weeks ago, we had a request to see whether we could help on artillery training for the Afghan National Army, and we tinkered with our composition to provide that.
So from time to time, we get requests to provide niche or special expertise. And if we can do that within our existing commitment, we do.
We're also, as I made clear at the time, looking at whether there's more we can do in the police training area, and the Attorney-General's also looking at whether there's more we can do in terms of building the capacity of the law and justice institutions in Afghanistan, in Kabul itself.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Stephen Smith, just finally, these talks often go better if there can be found some sort of shared connection between the protagonists. Have you and Robert Gates got an unexpected shared interest that might make things go easier?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don't think you'd regard any of Kevin, myself, Bob Gates or Hillary Clinton as protagonists. We all get on very well. I've known Bob Gates for three years. I think he's a terrific individual, but also, he's a very good Secretary of Defense.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: It's just a fancy way of asking whether the two of you played golf or something.
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not a golfer [laughs].
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Okay.
STEPHEN SMITH: His family home is in Washington State in Seattle, and as chance would have it, my mother's older sister was a war bride. She married a US submariner. And just as Bob and his wife are proposing to retire just north of Seattle, so did my aunty. So…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: There you go [laughs].
STEPHEN SMITH: … we've had conversations about the advantages, both in the United States and inAustralia in living and retiring in the west of the continent.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Yes, that's right, in grizzly country. Stephen Smith, good to talk, thank you.
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