TRANSCRIPT: TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS UHLMANN, ABC 7.30
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 28 March 2012
TOPICS: Cocos Islands; Force Posture Review
CHRIS UHLMANN: We're joined by the Defence Minister Stephen Smith.
STEPHEN SMITH: A Pleasure.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Is it likely that Australia will agree to US basing its aircraft in the Cocos Islands?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the point I've made today is that we've got three priorities arising out of the announcement that the Prime Minister and President Obama made in November which is a Marine taskforce rotating through the Northern Territory, greater access to our RAAF bases in the Northern Territory for US aircraft, and in the longer term, greater naval access to HMAS Stirling, our Indian Ocean port from my home state of WA. The proposal about Cocos Island is a long-term prospect.
CHRIS UHLMANN: But officials are talking about it now, aren't they?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well officials are certainly talking to journalists. But the point I've made today is there's nothing that's come or been discussed or decided at my level. And I made this point in the run-up to President Obama's visit that neither commentators nor officials should get ahead of themselves.
CHRIS UHLMANN: So are you annoyed at some of these officials for talking to journalists? Because clearly they have been. An Australian official was actually mentioned in the Washington Post article.
STEPHEN SMITH: In my experience, officials always talk to journalists. That's just part of the ebb and flow. But the key discussion in this area - what are the discussions that I have with in the past Bob Gates or currently Leon Panetta.
And I made it clear at the time of the President's visit that we were looking in the long term to Cocos Island as a potential strategic asset.
It's also mentioned, as I made clear today in our own Force Posture Review which deals with positioning our own assets properly for the Asia Pacific century. And so we've been transparent about our priorities, but also transparent about the fact that there is a (inaudible).
CHRIS UHLMANN: But in-principle though, Minister, this is where we're heading, isn't it- there will be US spy planes based on the Cocos Islands?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you can't make that assumption.
CHRIS UHLMANN: But that's where we're heading-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you can't make that assumption.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Have you got an in-principle agreement on that?
STEPHEN SMITH: There has not even been a conversation about Cocos-
CHRIS UHLMANN: Not by officials?
STEPHEN SMITH: Other than a - well the only conversation that matters in this context is a conversation that we might have at AUSMIN, our ministerial consultations, a conversation I might have with Bob Gates in the past or Leon Panetta now.
And I make precisely the same points when I saw lots of speculation in the run-up to the President's visit about US bases here and a whole range of things. The only conversation we've had at the appropriate level about Cocos Island is in the long term we see it as a potential strategic asset.
There's been no conversation about what we might do. And as we've made clear publicly through my publication of our own Force Posture Review, if you want to do anything serious at Cocos, you've got to spend over $75 million to fix up the runway before you start.
CHRIS UHLMANN: $75 million is not all that much in the scheme of things, particularly not in the US military budget.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well last time I looked at the US military budget they were going in billions of dollars of cuts because they're under financial pressure just as we are.
CHRIS UHLMANN: And President Obama made it quite clear that none of those cuts would come in the Asia Pacific- in fact they would be increasing spending here.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well and that's an unambiguously good thing because this is, if you like-
CHRIS UHLMANN: So they should be able to afford $75 million for a runway upgrade.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, before you start spending money, you've got to have the conversation at the strategic level, which hasn't occurred.
But this is a pinpoint really of a broader issue which is in our very strong view, the presence of the United States in the Asia Pacific region is unambiguously a force for peace and security and for prosperity and that's why we strongly support what we're doing already, our three priorities that I've outlined under the Force Posture Review.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Is that a view that's shared by Beijing though?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, our own judgment is that in the course of this century, the most important bilateral relationship will be between the United States and China and that's why we encourage the United States and China to have a positive and productive bilateral relationship.
And the point we've made to China is that it's not inconsistent Australia having a comprehensive relationship with China as we do and also having a military alliance with the United States.
CHRIS UHLMANN: You would understand that in the United States there is a live discussion about the way it goes about dealing with China and it's being driven by those who believe that China should be contained and those who believe that China should be allow to grow in the way that you believe it should.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's not possible to contain, in my view, a country of a billion people. I don't believe it's possible to run a containment policy so far as China is concerned. Equally, it would not be possible to run a containment policy so far as India is concerned.
So we see in this century not just the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the ASEAN economies combined, and the international community, our region, needs to adjust to these and that's why we say those bilateral relationship - US, China, India - are the key.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Do you think that the Australian people have a clear enough idea yet of how significant this increase is of the US military presence in Australia? We're talking about - that group of Marines will be quite a formidable force when it's finally all here.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we've been very transparent about what we've decided to do with the United States. The first group, 250 Marines who rotate through the Northern Territory, arrive very shortly, next month. That'll grow over a period of five or six years to 2,500, again rotating.
When the Indonesians were here last week or the week before with Bob Carr and I, when my Singaporean counterpart was here last week, we've also made it clear that we see the presence of the US doing joint exercises with Australia also reaching out to ASEAN countries to do likewise. That's a good thing, particularly in the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief area.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Will nuclear-powered submarines and ships be coming to HMAS Stirling in the west?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we see - we envisage that, that in the future there'll be greater access to United States naval vessels, including submarines. We see visits at the moment. What we do envisage is that the frequency of those visits will increase. And why that is, if you like, third cab off the rank is because we do see the Indian Ocean rim rising in importance.
And that's why we have, as well, sought to substantially enhance our own engagement with India, not just on the general bilateral front, but also military-to-military and defence-to-defence arrangements.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Stephen Smith, we'll have to leave it there, thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Chris. Thanks very much.