TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JIM MIDDLETON, NEWSLINE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 29 AUGUST 2012
TOPICS: Vietnam; US-China relationship.
JIM MIDDLETON: Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith has just been holding talks with his Vietnamese counterpart in Hanoi.
Minister, welcome back to the program.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure Jim.
JIM MIDDLETON: Regional security was one of the issues on your agenda, what did your Vietnamese counterpart have to say about the various unresolved territorial claims in the South China Sea?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we certainly discussed that as one of the regional issues of mutual concern. I put Australia's long standing position which is that where there are maritime or territorial disputes, whether they're in the South China Sea or the EC as Vietnamese say or elsewhere, that Australia wants to see these disputes resolved amicably, in accordance with international law and consistent with the law of the sea and particular the United Nations convention. And we want it to occur in that way because as we've seen in recent times these can be potential cause for concern and one needs to be careful about misjudgement and miscalculation.
JIM MIDDLETON: Does Australia support Vietnam and other South East Asian nations in their quest to have these issues resolved multilaterally rather than bilaterally one by one as Beijing's demanding?
STEPHEN SMITH: Australia's position is - firstly we don't take sides in these matters. So we leave the merits to the parties concerned to resolve in accordance with international law. And sometimes these are disputes between two countries, sometimes more. So whilst they can be bilateral issues, they can involve more than two countries.
But because whether it's in the South China Sea or the East China Sea or elsewhere in the world these can be causes for concern and issues that need to be managed carefully. Australia does say that the relevant regional or international institution - and in our region in that case it's the ASEAN related forums, Australia believes that the regional institutions are entitled to take an interest in these matters and that's why Australia has in the past again publicly and privately indicated its support for these matters being raised at the East Asia Summit and also in Defence Ministers case at the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus Meeting which Vietnam aired the inaugural meeting of back in October 2010 where these issues were discussed at that time.
JIM MIDDLETON: Australia's building its defence and military ties with Vietnam, you say that Australia welcomes Vietnam taking a greater role in contributing to regional security and stability. As these ties with nations around the region develop, I wonder whether that might not increase the apprehension in Beijing about its constant fear of containment?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've said on a number of occasions that people who refer to a policy of containment are referring to a policy that's not capable of working. You can't contain a country of over a billion people whether it's China or India. So containment is not Australia's policy. Our policy is to engage China. We want China to become a responsible [indistinct] in international community.
In the course of the first half of this century we'll see two super powers, the United States and China. My own view is in the second half we'll see three, United States, China and India. And Vietnam has shared a border with China for thousands of years so Vietnam having a positive bilateral relationship and integrated comprehensive relationship with China is absolutely essential to Vietnam.
So that's not the prism through which Australia or indeed Vietnam even though I'm not trying to speak on Vietnam's behalf, that's not the prism through which we see this.
Next year we mark our fortieth anniversary of diplomatic relations and in the last half dozen years we've taken that to a new level of practical cooperation, whether it's on the economic front, whether it's education and the number of Vietnamese students in Australia, whether it's development assistance or whether it's in my area defence to defence and military to military arrangements.
In October 2010 in my last visit here we signed a Memorandum of Understanding for practical defence cooperation and we are moving to enhance that.
JIM MIDDLETON: The state department's Asia Pacific expert Kurt Campbell has admitted that President Obama's announcement last year that the US would commit more of its military forces to the Asia Pacific did unsettle key nations in the region, that's been something of a difficulty to clean up for Washington and for Canberra. Has it no?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not sure that's right. I think Kurt Campbell and his discussions with journalists was referring to the potential for the United States so-called pivot to cause some of their traditional allies in Europe to worry. And so the United States has had to make it clear to its NATO partners for example that it continues to see a huge strategic [indistinct] obligation in Europe and through the North Atlantic Treaty.
I've often made the point that if you are worried about 250 and subsequently 2500 Marines rotating on a six month basis through Australia through Darwin and your worry about that is China then what you're really worried about is not Australia or 250 Marines, it's the United States, China relationship. And again both privately at my meeting today with the Vietnamese Defence Minister and publicly at our press conference I made the point that the single most important bilateral relationship in the first half of this century is between United Sates and China and the United States and China have to grow their relationship at a strategic level, at a political level, at a military level, at a defence level to the same level they have economically. That's the only we are helping sure that United States and China don't engage in strategic competition. And so privately and publicly Australia gives that advice both to the United States and China.
So if you're worried about the so-called pivot which is essentially an allocation of United States assets, 50-50 from Europe to Asia Pacific to 60-40, then what you're really worried about is the United States/China relationship and in that respect United States and China have to lift their strategic engagement to the same level that they have their economic engagement.
JIM MIDDLETON: Minister, thanks very much.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim. Thanks very much.