TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JIM MIDDLETON, ABC NEWSLINE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
TOPICS: Asylum Seekers; FPDA; South China Sea; Defence Budgets
JIM MIDDLETON: China was on the agenda as defence ministers from the countries making up the Five Power Defence Arrangement; Malaysia, Singapore, Britain, Australia and New Zealand met in Singapore. Stephen Smith is Australia's Defence Minister. Minister thanks very much for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure Jim.
JIM MIDDLETON: Before we get to the substance of your visit, I wonder whether I could get your reaction to the sinking of another boat carrying asylum seekers apparently bound for Australia off the Indonesian coast. Are any Australian vessels, naval ships, near enough to provide any assistance do you think?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm working off if you like second-hand information. My advice is that it's in the Indonesian search and rescue area and that the rescue efforts have been affected by Indonesian Navy. There's been no call or request on Australian Navy or Australian agencies to assist but it does sound very much like another unfolding tragedy. I wouldn't rely upon my figures but what I've seen of figures suggest as many as 60 people on the boat, anywhere between 40 and 50 rescued, potentially half a dozen dead and maybe as many as 10 to 20 unaccounted for. So we'll need to wait for detailed advice from the Indonesian authorities but it's got all of the early signs of another terrible tragedy.
JIM MIDDLETON: Do you have any indication at this stage whether Australian authorities were aware either via the Australian Navy or via signals traffic that the boat was in difficulties?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I'm not in a position to volunteer that information. The only advice I have is that this was an incident which occurred within Indonesian search and rescue area, the rescue is being affected by Indonesian Navy, Indonesian authorities and no call has been made upon the Australian Navy or Australian agencies to render any assistance. That's as much as I know as I say and I'm saying this advisedly, I'm very much getting that second-hand in Singapore that the primary effort so far as the rescue is concerned is with the Indonesians and I'm not aware that we've been asked to provide any assistance whatsoever. If of course we are asked to provide any assistance then given it's a search and rescue we would do that but my understanding is that it's very much within the responsibility of the Indonesian Navy and Indonesian authorities.
JIM MIDDLETON: You're in Singapore for talks with Australia's Five Power Defence Arrangement partners and I notice the contingence from the respective armed forces of the Arrangement have been exercising in the South China Sea, is this a sign of growing concern about the continuing tension with China over this important sea lane?
STEPHEN SMITH: No it's the 40th anniversary of the Five Power Defence Arrangement which was struck in the early 1970s in the aftermath of significant security concerns for Malaya and subsequently Malaysia and Singapore. It's a very significant exercise which is coinciding with the 40th Anniversary. We're contributing four ships and nearly 10 planes and nearly 600 personnel. All up it's some 4000 personnel. So from five nations it's a significant maritime based exercise. But it's not directed either expressly or impliedly to any South China Seas issue. This is a very good arrangement. I've often made the point that if we tried to strike this arrangement up today an arrangement between Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Malaysia and Singapore, it would be very hard if not impossible to get up. But it's worked very well and as we reviewed the arrangements today we're very positive about the future, particularly at that operational level.
JIM MIDDLETON: Well why exercise in the South China Sea rather than closer to the coastlines of the partnership countries? Why not closer to Singapore, Malaysia or Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the exercise is based primarily in this swathe of territory from Malaysia to Singapore. So I don't make the same associations so far as the South China Sea is concerned and the five ministers were asked about the South China Sea issue at our press conference this afternoon and the response was that this was not an issue that was dealt with in any detail or in any moment whatsoever. Yes we do know that there are maritime and territorial disputes so far as the South China Sea is concerned and all Australia asks is that these issues are settled amicably between the countries concerned and settled in accordance with international law and international norms. We don't want any maritime or territorial disputes and they of course occur not just in the South China Sea but elsewhere. We don't want territorial disputes to be a cause of concern or tension in our region.
JIM MIDDLETON: US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has just made a sweep through the Asia Pacific. In your talks how much importance was given to the question of keeping the United States, encouraging the United States to remain engaged in the region?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in our strategic conversation we spoke about not just the rise of China, but as Australia puts it, this being the Asia Pacific century, the rise of China, the rise of India, importantly the rise of the ASEAN economies combined, and for example in Australia's case in the decade from 1996 to 2006, our average increase in trade with the ASEAN countries is 115 per cent, but also the ongoing economic importance of Japan, the Republic of Korea and very importantly the ongoing significant influence and role of the United States. We see the United States very much as being a very significant factor in the reason and the cause of peace and stability in the Asia Pacific since the end of World War II and very much look forward to the United States continuing, indeed enhancing that engagement.
JIM MIDDLETON: And what about the question of the ability of the United States to project as much power as it has in the past, it's facing considerable budgetary constraints, defence budget cuts, is it time and was there consideration given in your discussions to the notion that other countries including Australia simply will have to contribute more of in terms of a defence budget, in terms of GDP?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in a number of respects there are a range of countries that face in terms of defence and military budget, face a range of challenges. Australia is one of those, United Kingdom, New Zealand and indeed the United States. But Secretary Panetta made it clear when he met with ASEAN defence ministers that so far as the United States is concerned, as it stages a drawdown and a withdrawal from the Middle East, Iraq and subsequently Afghanistan, it's not proposing to allow whatever budget constraints or cuts or difficulties it has to adversely impact upon its presence in the Asia Pacific, and Secretary Panetta has made that point to me personally at the AUSMIN meeting that we had in San Francisco in September. I know that he's made that point personally to other ASEAN and ASEAN related defence ministers. So the United States in my view in a very positive sense has made it clear privately and publicly that it wants to continue its engagement in the Asia Pacific, indeed, it’s looking to enhance that engagement and, as you know, it’s conducting a global force posture review and we’ve been working closely with the United States about what implications that might have, for example with enhanced exercises and training so far as Australia is concerned, with the United States in our part of the world.
JIM MIDDLETON: Minister, once again, thanks very much for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Jim. Thanks very much