TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH HUGH RIMINTON, CHANNEL 10 MEET THE PRESS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & EO
TOPICS: US global force posture review, East Asia Summit, ALP National Conference, MYEFO
HUGH RIMINTON: And welcome to the program, Defence Minister Stephen Smith. Good morning Minister.
I wonder if I can ask you – there’s been bipartisan support here in Australia to the comments that were made and the strategic announcements that were made by the US President in recent days. China is less pleased about it though – they’ve issued, in an editorial in ‘The People’s Daily’ a warning to Australia that we risk being caught in the crossfire. What on earth do you think they mean?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think we have to be very careful to divorce commentary from official responses from China. If you look at the official spokesperson from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that response was, frankly, quite measured. China, for a long time, has said that it doesn’t believe there should be military alliances, but it understands that Australia has a military alliance with the United States.
So my own judgement is that the response – official response from China – has frankly been a measured one. It hasn’t been over the top. And so far as Australia is concerned, we continue to make the point publicly and privately to China that there’s no inconsistency between a military alliance through our ANZUS alliance with the United States and a comprehensive bilateral relationship with China, which also includes military-to-military and defence-to-defence contacts and arrangements.
HUGH RIMINTON: But as a former Foreign Minister you understand quite clearly the way that China works – their official line may well be measured, but they express how they’re feeling through those organs of the state, like ‘The People’s Daily’ and the Xinhua News Agency. They never do anything that isn’t signed off, essentially, at the top level. To take you back to it, what do you think they mean when they’re warning Australia that we could potentially be caught in the crossfire?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, to take up your point, it’s really what they say at the top level. It’s really not a matter for me to go into exhaustive detail – the Prime Minister will do that if she so chooses. But it is the case that overnight in Bali, the Prime Minister met with Premier Wen.
I’m told they had a cordial and forward-looking conversation, and that it was a conversation conducted, as you would always expect between Australia and China, with mutual respect. Again, if you go to the highest levels and official response, my own judgement is that the response from China has been a moderate and an appropriate one and there’s plenty of commentary around in Australian media. There’s plenty of commentary around in Chinese media.
I think we need to understand very carefully what we’ve done here, which is a continuation of training exercises that we do with the United States. The United States in our judgement has been a force of peace, security and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region for us and that will continue –
HUGH RIMINTON: Sure, we’re familiar with those arguments for it. If I can take you back to the meeting between the Prime Minister and Premier Wen last night, can you confirm that the new strategic arrangements with the United States were even discussed?
STEPHEN SMITH: I’ll be careful in what I say, because it’s a matter for the Prime Minister. My understanding was that, yes, the Prime Minister raised that issue with Premier Wen and made the sorts of comments that you’ve seen her make publicly, which of course you would anticipate. But the tone of the meeting I’m told, was cordial, was forward-looking, and constructive. And that is both to be expected, but also a very good thing.
I have spoken in the past to many Chinese interlocutors and I’ve always made the point that there’s no inconsistency with our United States alliance with a growing and comprehensive relationship with China. And again, we have – in the last 12 months or so – conducted for example, live-fire exercises withChina.
So, just as it’s important to have a comprehensive relationship with China, so we say both to the United States and China, it’s important that they have a positive and productive relationship, including a relationship which encompasses military-to-military and defence-to-defence contacts.
HUGH RIMINTON: If I can take you to something that the Greens’ leader, Bob Brown said - he believes Australia deserves a proper debate, not a fait accompli. I’ll play you a grab of his comments in recent days.
BROWN AUDIO: The question is, “Is Australia’s future interests exactly the same as the US?” And I would contend they’re not.
HUGH RIMINTON: There is an issue here, isn’t it? We go to war without a parliamentary debate about it. We have now signed up to a strategic shift with theUnited States without a parliamentary debate about it. At what stage is there going to be a genuine opportunity for the people’s House to get through these important issues?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, I don’t agree with that characterisation. In the first instance, since the Australian Federation commenced, it’s been a matter for the Executive, for the Government of the day, to make a judgement about whether Australian troops are committed overseas in a conflict.
That’s been the case for time immemorial and my own judgement is that is how it should continue. Of course, parliaments and people will make their judgements about the wisdom of such an exercise.
But I strongly disagree with the Greens’ view that a judgement about whether Australia should engage in a conflict is made by the Government of the day or the Parliament of the day.
Secondly, the Greens’ position is that they would not have an alliance with the United States. And again, we have a very strong disagreement there.
So everything that Bob Brown says about this matter is predicated from the starting point that the Greens would not have an alliance with the United States. Insofar as a conversation about this is concerned the Australian Government, since it came to office in December 2007, has been arguing strongly that the United States not only needs to remain engaged in the Asia-Pacific, it should enhance that engagement.
We’ve been instrumental in successfully seeing an expanded East Asia Summit where Russia and the United States now attend – and we’re seeing that for the first time today - that’s very important. And secondly, we’ve also seen the United States indicate – through President Obama’s Canberra speech last week – that it intends to enhance its engagement in a practical way, but as a force for peace and security and prosperity, not for concern or conflict.
HUGH RIMINTON: We’ll take a break and return with the panel.
HUGH RIMINTON: You’re on Meet the Press. Our guest is the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith. Welcome now to our panel, Sabra Lane from ABC radio and Matt Wade from The Sydney Morning Herald. Good morning to both of you.
Kevin Rudd’s declaration that he was not consulted on the Prime Minister’s back flip on uranium sales to India, even though he was heading to India at the time, was a free kick for the Opposition.
ABBOTT AUDIO: Plainly, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard don’t talk to each other. They don’t like each other.
SABRA LANE: Minister, when Kevin Rudd became Foreign Minister, you said that there shouldn’t be a shred of daylight between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister. What does it say about Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd’s relationship that she kept him totally in the dark on her policy reversal and she now wants to endorse uranium sales to India?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a couple of points. Firstly, there’s one of two ways that a Prime Minister can do this. A Prime Minister can take a change of Labor Party policy to a Cabinet and say we should resolve, as a Cabinet, that this is the approach we want to take to a national conference, bind the Cabinet, then go with the decision already made.
Or, you can do what the Prime Minister, in my view, has correctly done, which is say, I think this is an important change for Australia, an important change in our national interest and strategically announce that and move forward.
It’s not the case that the Foreign Minister had no notice. Just as my office was advised the night before, so he received some advice that the Prime Minister was proposing to start the day with those opinion pieces. So I don’t regard that as a big point.
The key point about crack of light is not a crack of light on policy. And the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Resources Minister and I, all very strongly support the change of approach, because it’s in our national interest and it’s very important strategically, as India emerges as a rising power in the course of this century.
SABRA LANE: The Labor left is meeting today to discuss policy. Particularly looking at this u-turn on uranium. It says that India shouldn’t be given uranium, that it hasn’t signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that it’s irresponsible to give them uranium when they’re in constant conflict with another country that is also nuclear-armed. They’ve got a point, haven’t they?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there’s no evidence whatsoever over the years that India has in any way proliferated so far as uranium or nuclear materials, or nuclear expertise is concerned. On the contrary, they have guarded that very jealously.
The changed circumstances here occurred when in 2008-2009, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Supplies Group authorised the India-United States civil nuclear arrangement. That brought India, for the first time, under the international nuclear regulators. It effectively ensured that India would, in a de facto sense, comply with the general arrangements that we find under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
India has always made it clear it wouldn’t sign that treaty. This is the best way of bringing India under international nuclear regulation, and Australia’s attitude is now – or should be, after the national conference – that if India signs up a separate standard bilateral arrangement with Australia on nuclear safeguards, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t export uranium to India.
If we can export uranium to China and Russia, we can export uranium to the largest democracy in the world, where there is no evidence whatsoever of proliferation of nuclear materials.
MATT WADE: Mr Smith, Australia has been at the centre of a very stormy week in the region, and it ended with reports that Australia and the US had discussed military bases in the Indian Ocean- a joint military base in the Indian Ocean. Can you rule out that in future, Australia and the US will have bases in the Indian Ocean?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that discussion has not occurred. We have three levels of arrangement or engagement with the United States. We have our joint facilities. We don’t have bases. We have joint facilities and Pine Gap is a classic illustration. Secondly, we have joint training and thirdly, we have joint exercises.
The training and exercises occur under the umbrella of a Status of Forces Agreement entered into in 1963. That’s the basis under which the Marines will rotate through the Northern Territory. I made it clear during the week that there were three levels of engagement so far as the Global Force Posture Review is concerned.
That's the Marine rotation through the Northern Territory, greater utilisation of Air Force bases in northern Australia for US planes and in the longer term, the prospect of enhanced ship visits and submarine visits through the Indian Ocean Rim through HMAS Stirling in Western Australia. That’s where that comment has been misunderstood.
MATT WADE: So you’re ruling out any future joint operations or military establishments in Cocos Islands?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we don’t have United States military bases on Australian territory. That’s the first thing. Secondly, we have joint exercises and joint training. And we certainly have naval vessels coming to HMAS Stirling on a regular basis.
Now, down the track in the future, there may well be some possibility or prospect of greater utilisation of Cocos Island. But that’s well down the track. Indeed, there would be a requirement for substantial infrastructure changes to be made for further air or naval engagement through the Cocos Islands.
In the first instance, our Indian Ocean arrangement will be, in my view, greater naval access to our premier Indian Ocean naval base – Stirling in Western Australia.
SABRA LANE: Minister, the Government will update its budget figures in a couple of weeks. Have you asked Defence Chiefs to find further savings and can you give the guarantee that that won’t affect troops on the front line?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we’ve got two things coming up which are challenges fiscally and financially for the Government. Firstly, we have MYEFO, which the Treasurer will present in the period between now and the end of the year. And secondly, we’ve got next year’s budget.
I’ve made it clear, in a paper presented to the Senior Leadership Group on Friday, that so far as the budget is concerned – because we want to meet our overall economic priority of returning to surplus – Defence may again be called on to make a contribution to that.
One thing you can be absolutely assured of – nothing we do on the financial front will adversely impact on our operations or force protection in Afghanistan, or indeed, in East Timor or the Solomon Islands.
HUGH RIMINTON: Minister Stephen Smith, your voice held up- which after the last week is good news. Thank you very much for being with us today.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Hugh. Thanks very much.