Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TOPICS: AUSTRALIA SINGAPORE RELATIONS, NATO SUMMIT IN LISBON, AFGHANISTAN, CHINA, COMBAT UNIFORMS, JSF REPORT, ASX.
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 22 NOVEMBER 2010
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you very much. I'm very pleased this morning to welcome Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Deputy Prime Minister Teo, to Australia. It's not his first visit, but we are very pleased to see him here.
The Deputy Prime Minister has been visiting for the last couple of days and his visit will end tomorrow. But he has variously been at the Shoalwater Bay exercises where Singapore conducts what we describe as unilateral training exercises under an agreement between Australia and Singapore. That agreement was renewed a couple of years ago for a further 10 years, and those exercises are a very important part of the close defence cooperation relationship between Australia and Singapore.
The Deputy Prime Minister also visited RAAF Base Pearce in Western Australia where there is a significant aviation training element so far as Singapore is concerned. I was in transit in Singapore over the weekend coming back from Lisbon and our High Commissioner in Singapore was at pains to tell me that a lot of the TV media in Singapore over the weekend had been of the Deputy Prime Minister's visit to RAAF Base Pearce because that's regarded as a very significant engagement so far as Singapore is concerned.
So we are very pleased with the bilateral relationship that we have with Singapore. It's reflected generally, but also by the close defence cooperation arrangements.
In addition to our bilateral relationship, of course, we deal with each other regionally, historically through the so-called Five Power Defence Arrangements - Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, United Kingdom and New Zealand - and next year will see the fortieth anniversary of the Five Power Defence Arrangements.
Most recently in terms of our regional engagement, last month the Deputy Prime Minister and I were in Hanoi for the first Ministerial level meeting of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Plus Meeting, which essentially is Defence Ministers’ meeting in the expanded East Asia Summit format, and we regard that as a very important development so far as our regional architecture is concerned. And so we were both very pleased to be in Hanoiand both very pleased to work closely in that format.
In terms of our bilateral conversation this morning, we dealt with those issues that I have just referred to - the strength of our bilateral engagement, the strength of our engagement regionally. We of course also work together closely in Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan. Insofar as Afghanistan is concerned, I briefed the Deputy Prime Minister on the weekend meetings in Lisbon. In Afghanistan, in terms of the cooperation between Australia andSingapore, we've been very pleased with the work that Singapore has done on the medical and surgical front, and that's been a very important part of the Australia-Singapore cooperative relationship in Uruzgan Province.
I briefed the Deputy Prime Minister on the Lisbon meeting. We were very pleased, as you would have gathered from the Prime Minister's public remarks and my public remarks, very pleased with the outcomes from the conference, setting the scene as it does for transition in accordance with the Afghanistan Government's objective and the international community's objective of transition by the end of 2014.
I also took the opportunity of briefing the Deputy Prime Minister on the recent very successful AUSMIN talks that were conducted in Melbourne. Both Australia and Singapore are very pleased with the engagement by the Obama Administration of the United States in the Asia-Pacific and very pleased to see that enhanced engagement both through the expanded East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus.
And so I briefed the Deputy Prime Minister on those talks, including the United States Force Posture Review which, as Secretary Gates made clear, is a matter before the US Administration, no final decisions having been made. But again I made the point that we welcome our engagement with the United States and welcome enhanced engagement by the United States in our region, in the Asia-Pacific.
So Deputy Prime Minister, it's very good to see you again. We first met in Singapore a few years ago for the Australia-Singapore Joint Ministerial Commission, which sees Australian and Singapore Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence Ministers meet. It's one of two countries that Australia meets in this format and we'll be meeting in that format here next year. So very pleased to see you on that occasion but also pleased to see you in Hanoirecently, and particularly pleased to see you here in Australia.
The Deputy Prime Minister will, after this press conference, have a formal meeting with the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, will meet with the Minister for Foreign Affairs later today, and tomorrow will meet with the Prime Minister.
So we're very pleased to see you here again and I would be pleased if you could make some opening remarks.
TEO CHEE HEAN: Thank you, Minister.
Well, first of all, I'd like to thank Minister Smith for his very warm welcome here in Canberra. I know that he has just returned from a very busy schedule in Lisbon and I would like to thank him for taking the time to see me this morning.
Australia and Singapore have a very long defence relationship that goes back many decades. We've worked together in our region in South-East Asia where Australia has played a major role in the security and stability of the region.
We are very grateful for the opportunities that Australia has provided for Singapore to train here in Australia. It's been a great help to us, our training in Shoalwater Bay as well as our flight training in RAAF Pearce in Perth. I've just visited both places and it's going very well and we're very grateful for the cooperation.
In the Shoalwater Bay area, I also had the opportunity to meet the local mayor and councillors in the Rockhampton area and I was very happy to see that they also have extended a very warm welcome to theSingapore soldiers who do come to that area regularly each year.
We also had the opportunity to discuss on a multilateral level the things that have been happening. Next year is the fortieth anniversary of the Five Power Defence Arrangements; that's provided a very good platform for the five countries - the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore - to work together to build capacity. It's been a remarkable arrangement, very flexible and able to move forward and deal with new kinds of security challenges that we all face.
On the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus where both Minister Smith and I attended just a month and a half ago, we're very happy that this has occurred. It's an important part of the regional architecture and we're of course very happy and delighted that Australia is a part of this and will be able to play a concrete and substantial role there.
In Afghanistan, we are very thankful to the ADF for facilitating our deployments into Afghanistan and the work that we do with the ADF both in Uruzgan and now also in Kabul.
In Uruzgan, as Minister Smith has said, we've deployed medical teams there, but also we've deployed weapon-locating radar to provide early warning for the base in Uruzgan, and also a UAV, unmanned aerial vehicle group, operating out of the base there to provide surveillance.
We've also started to send people into artillery training school in Kabul, together with our Australian Defence Force counterparts, and we hope to continue to do that in the coming year.
So all in all, we've had very good discussions and I'm thankful - grateful for Minister Smith's meeting this morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, thanks very much, Deputy Prime Minister. We're happy to respond to your questions. If we could do questions about the relationship and matters relevant to that and then with some time constraints I'm happy to respond to other issues.
QUESTION: Can I just ask - you said that you spoke about the enhanced engagement by the US as outlined at the AUSMIN talks. In context of that did you also discuss China and the military rise of China?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the Deputy Prime Minister and I have spoken about China and our region in the context of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Plus Meeting, but as you know in the course of the AUSMIN conversation, Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton, and Foreign Minister Rudd and I spoke about the regional architecture and also China in the region. And we spoke about these matters today.
One particular area that we spoke about was in the maritime area. One of the things that Australia was very grateful to Singapore for in the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Plus Meeting was Singapore's support for Australia to chair, together with Malaysia, the expert working group on maritime issues.
Singapore is a maritime country. Australia is a maritime country and continent - so we both have very strong interests in continuation of international norms and law of the sea so far as maritime issues is concerned. And so we spoke about those matters.
On the Force Posture Review generally it is, of course, the case that no final decisions have been made by theUnited States, as Secretary Gates made clear. The Force Posture Review has not been finalised by Defence or by him, let alone the administration.
On China generally, Australia's view is well known. We are positive and optimistic that China will emerge, as the Chinese say, into a harmonious environment; as Bob Zoellick says, as a responsible stakeholder. And the rise of any new power always brings with it issues that need to be addressed by the region and the globe, but we've been very pleased with the enhanced defence cooperation discussions and arrangements we've had with China in recent time, the visit here of General Guo, the Vice Chairman of the Military Commission, and also the recent naval exercises that we affected with China.
But Deputy Prime Minister, you might want to add to those remarks.
TEO CHEE HEAN: Singapore's view on engagement with China, particularly in the military area, is that we should encourage them to engage more with countries in the region, and other countries in the world - because that will help them to understand the context in which they will be operating in future, create better understanding, more transparency on the part of all parties.
Like Australia, Singapore also has just begun to conduct exercises with China. And we believe that this will also contribute to this process of mutual understanding and creating more trust and confidence among the Forces in the Asia-Pacific.
QUESTION: Mr Smith, Mr Teo, you've just come back from Lisbon. What sort of military support do you envisage providing in Afghanistan, if any, post 2014?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as the Prime Minister and I have both made clear we believe we are on track in Uruzgan to meet our training and mentoring commitment over the next two to four years. That's within the 2014 objective set by the Afghanistan Government and also by the international community. As I've made clear, and as the Prime Minister has made clear and as the Lisbon Communiqué makes clear when it refers to using the phrase ‘investing the proceeds of transition’ we don't see that as being the end of our involvement or engagement. Indeed one of the strengths of the Lisbon meeting Communiqué was a very strong message by the international community that once the training has been effected province by province, district by district, Afghanistan security authorities are in a position to take lead responsibility for security matters, there will still be a role for the international community.
In our case, as I've said publicly previously, it might be in an overwatch role; there may be some ongoing requirement for special services. It'll certainly be a role by Australia and the international community in the development assistance capacity building area. But we need to take these issues step by step so we don't have a concluded view.
Indeed, the necessary discussions are some time away. We want to first effect our objective, our mission in Uruzgan which is to train the Kandaks in the Afghan National Army Fourth Battalion.
QUESTION: Could you tweak the force posture in the meantime?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I've made the point, from time to time we do get requests either from NATO or from ISAF to look at providing special or niche assistance.
And as the Deputy Prime Minister has indicated, one of the things we've done recently is to - within our 1550 on average compliment - to agree to a request to put about 20 trainers into the artillery school. And we'll be joined in the New Year by a range of artillery trainers from Singapore as well.
We've also, in a separate context, been asked to see whether we can provide some additional police training capacity which we continue to look at. And we've also, in the course of the weekend, agreed that we can provide a small number of Australian personnel for what's described as the Afghanistan Field Training Centre, which is essentially their advanced military training school. So from time to time we get requests for what I describe as niche capability or training, and where we can we respond to those favourably.
The artillery training is the most recent best example of that.
QUESTION: Minister, can I just ask you about a domestic issue.
STEPHEN SMITH: Can we just - can we finish with matters Australia, Singapore and… yep? Go ahead.
QUESTION: At the Land Warfare Conference there was a lot of disquiet about the amount of work being left for defence industry locally at the moment, and the finger was being pointed at your good self and Cabinet for not approving a pipeline of new work.
And I just wonder what you would say to those kinds of…
STEPHEN SMITH: Well some general remarks. Firstly, Jason Clare, the Minister for Defence Materiel, made a very important announcement at that conference so far as combat uniforms is concerned, and made the point very clearly that the starting point of the Government so far as the standard combat uniform is concerned, that we want that to be produced in Australia.
But we run a national security policy and a defence policy. It is not an industry policy per se, but it is of course very important that in a range of key areas that we have our own industrial capacity which is why when we're dealing with capability or procurement or combat uniform issues, we have very much in our mind issues of local industry capacity to deliver.
In my experience, whilst that has only been two or three months as Defence Minister, but more generally as a member of the Government, in my experience there are always requests, gratuitous advice, comment, criticisms, whatever - however you want to characterise them - from local industry about defence work.
The most important principle, so far as the Government is concerned, is that we get them right. We always have difficulty, historically, with large defence procurement projects. And one of the things the current Government has worked very hard on - and one of the things that I'm currently working very closely with the Secretary of the Department, with the Chief Executive Officer of the Defence Materiel Organisation, and with the Chief of the Defence Forces is to put in place further measures to ensure that we are very rigorous about getting value for money, very rigorous about trying to achieve our capability objectives.
There's always plenty of commentary - but from the Commonwealth's point of view the most important thing is to get the capability that we need, to do that in a way which is within our budget parameters, and to get value for money - and value for effort for the Australian people.
I haven't had the chance to have a conversation yet with Jason Clare who attended the conference on Friday. But I was very pleased with the work that he did in the combat uniform area, and very pleased with the announcement that he made on Friday.
QUESTION: Well the US Defence Audit Board's supposed to be releasing its JSF report today. Have you been briefed on that report yet?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I made clear at the time, it was a matter that Secretary Gates and I discussed at AUSMIN in passing. The baseline review that Secretary Gates has asked is due to be delivered on 22nd - well a bit more time to elapse before it's delivered in the United States.
We will, as appropriate, have access to that briefing and we will see what consequences, if any, flow. The point I've made previously, so far as the Joint Strike Fighter is concerned, very importantly Australia has chosen the conventional model, or the 35A version. Now there's been a lot of speculation about difficulties in the other two varieties, the aircraft carrier version and the vertical take-off and landing version.
We've also - and these were decisions taken before my time as Defence Minister, but they were very sensible, made sure that there is plenty of scope in the scheduling and the planning that we have done to take into account any slippage on production. So we are confident that the 14 Joint Strike Fighters that we have committed to take will be delivered on schedule.
Our schedule is to see those 14 produced effectively in 2014, in the United States, for work and training to occur in the United States for a period of time and for those planes to be delivered here on the 2017, 2018 timetable. In the meantime, of course, we have cover in terms of our capability through the Hornets and the Super Hornets.
QUESTION: Minister, the Chief of the Defence Force has previously said there was no problem with the uniforms. Was he lying to us?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I certainly would not categorise it in that way. We've had a…
QUESTION: Misinforming us in order to…
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I wouldn't…
QUESTION: …keep the Taliban misinformed?
STEPHEN SMITH: I wouldn't categorise it in that way. We've been doing a trial with a combat uniform inAfghanistan. That trial has gone well and we've extended that trial. And when I was in both Kabul and Tarin Kowt recently, a number of our personnel made the point to me that they regarded that uniform as being a very effective and good uniform for the purposes of their operations outside the wire in Afghanistan. That's the reason we have extended that trial and propose to make it available to all of our personnel outside the wire inAfghanistan.
QUESTION: Why - the Americans have recognised this problem for over a year. Why didn't we similarly deal with the concerns of the troops?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we have dealt with the concerns of the troops. One of the things that the Chief of Army and the Chief of the Defence Force constantly makes clear is that we respond - well firstly we make sure that the views of the troops on the ground are made known to senior officers, not just in Afghanistan, but here and they are taken into account.
We've had a limited trial. We have expanded that trial. It's been, in my view, a good process and a good decision, and I'm sure the announcement that Minister Clare made on Friday will be warmly welcomed by those of our troops in Afghanistan who don't currently have access to that uniform, but will in the future.
QUESTION: Are you disappointed we can't have an Australian - specifically Australian uniform?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well one of the very clear points that Minister Clare made over the weekend is that in terms of the standard or the basic combat uniform, we would like to see that produced in Australia - that's the first point.
Secondly, this particular uniform is produced in America and as Minister Clare made clear on Friday, we're looking at the possibility of essentially purchasing the intellectual property to enable a modified Australian version to be produced in Australia.
Whilst we're happy for the trial to continue, one of the things that we do need to look at is to ensure that we have a quintessentially Australian combat uniform, not just a mirror image of an American uniform. So these issues were all canvassed by Minister Clare in his public remarks and his speech to the conference.
QUESTION: Thanks Minister. And the final question, if I may, you have said that we have never received a direct request from America to up the level of our involvement in Afghanistan. It's my understanding that it was indicated that a direct request would be refused. And, as a result, America never moved to that level of formality. Had there been - when the Dutch announced their indication that they were going to withdraw - I realise this is before your time obviously…
STEPHEN SMITH: Sure, sure.
QUESTION: …as Minister - had there been any informal approaches by the Americans … as to whether or not we would consider the possibility of significantly upping our involvement in the country, because at that time there would still be the old strategy of the province by province approach, which has now been effectively overturned. But was there an informal approach, or a number of low level approaches from America, as to whether or not we would be prepared to consider upping our involvement?
STEPHEN SMITH: We let me make three points. Firstly, I made extensive remarks about this in Lisbon and I'm not proposing to repeat them, they're on the public record. That's the first point.
Secondly, I don't deal in 'informal approaches'. I'm a Minister, both Minister for Defence now and previously Minister for Foreign Affairs, and what I deal with are formal approaches from Ministerial counterparts from the United States, given that's the country we are talking to. So I don't deal in 'informal requests'.
Thirdly, on the issue - direct issue that you raise which is essentially Australia contemplating the prospect of taking the lead role in Uruzgan Province with the departure of the Dutch, I wasn't asked about this in Lisbon, but I'm very happy to deal with it now. You might recall that then Defence Minister Faulkner and I came to this very room and made an announcement about the arrangements to be put in place in Uruzgan following the departure of the Dutch which - what we now know is Combined Team Uruzgan where we work in partnership with the United States.
Defence Minister Faulkner and I, as Foreign Minister, had made it very clear in the run up to that, both privately and publicly, that Australia was not in the position - not in a position to take up the leadership in Uruzgan Province; in very many respects because we weren't in a position to provide the necessary so-called enablers, which the Dutch had done and which the United States now do.
This was not a matter of scuttlebutt or informal talk in the corridors. This was an Australian Government position made very clear by Minister Faulkner and by myself, both privately and publicly, so the question of us taking the leadership in Uruzgan never arose because we'd made it clear, on the public record, that this was not something which the Australian Government could countenance.
QUESTION: Could I just ask the Deputy Prime Minister, are you holding any talks about the proposed merger between the Singaporean Stock Exchange and the ASX while you're in Australia?
TEO CHEE HEAN: I have no plans to hold any talks on this matter, but perhaps we could take one step back. I think the whole Asia-Pacific region is becoming more integrated. We talked about defence today. But certainly in the economic area, the whole Asia-Pacific is becoming more integrated and I think there will be interest among people all over the Asia-Pacific and in other parts of the world, to find ways in which they can - capital markets, the investment markets can be also more integrated.
So I think that whatever opportunities are there should be explored. But, of course, this is a matter which both regulatory agencies have to go through. They also have to go through a process, in Australia, and we fully respect that process.
QUESTION: Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, on that issue, would the Singaporean Government consider relinquishing and the selling off its holding in the Singapore Stock Exchange institution, so that it would enable the merger to go ahead?
TEO CHEE HEAN: That question hasn't arisen, but perhaps I should also make a point about that.
The holding of the Singapore Government - the so-called holding of the Singapore Government, actually arose out of the demutualisation of the Singapore Stock Exchange. And so that holding is held entirely for the benefit of a financial industry development fund and is entirely for that purpose. So the holding also is not voted at all. So there's no such - no issue of control by the Singapore Government in the Singapore Stock Exchange.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much.
TEO CHEE HEAN: Thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you.
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