TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JIM MIDDLETON, NEWSLINE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 19 March 2013
TOPICS: Myanmar; Vietnam; Iraq.
JIM MIDDLETON: Australia and Myanmar used the President's visit to agree on closer Defence ties, including the return of an Australian military attaché full-time to Myanmar. Stephen Smith is Australia's Defence Minister. Minister, welcome to the program.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure, Jim.
JIM MIDDLETON: What does the Australian Government say to those people, some of them in fact from Myanmar, who argue that rewarding the Government there for its recent reforms by dropping some sanctions is one thing, but boosting military ties is too much too soon?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we are reflecting the fact that in our view some progress has been made and we want to encourage further progress. We continue to have an arms embargo, we've made some modest forward movement on defence-to-defence and military-to-military contact with Myanmar. We want Myanmar to emerge completing its reform program, returning full to democracy, and in a democracy a military has a role to play subject to its civilian masters, and we want to encourage that in Myanmar's military.
So we've taken some very modest steps. Currently our only effective contact is limited contact from a Defence attaché based in Thailand. We'll move to unlimited visits and we'll move as soon as practical to a Defence attaché based in Myanmar itself. So it's modest and limited steps, and we've also made the caveat that if the reform program lapses we reserve our right to return to our previous position.
JIM MIDDLETON: But it is the case that in parts of the country still the military is a law unto itself. For instance, in the Kachin State where the Kachin are being oppressed by the military. That has to be a continuing worry, and so my previous question remains.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we continue as we have over the past to make the point to Myanmar, when we have engaged with its officials, we want Myanmar to return the democracy. We want human rights to be respected. But on any measure the international community has embraced the changes that have been effected, have embraced the reform program that's being outlined and the points about respecting human rights, returning to democracy, were points all made both privately and publicly to Myanmar's president by the Prime Minister on his recent visit here.
So we're being cautious, but what we're doing is not out of kilter with the international community. It's in line with what the United Kingdom is proposing to do and the United States - over all of the period where the United States had a tenuous relationship with Myanmar the United States had a Defence attaché for all of that 20-year period.
JIM MIDDLETON: On another subject, you've just met Vietnam's Defence Minister in Canberra. In the wake of that you've said that Australia and Vietnam will look to further opportunities to enhance military engagement, including in the area of maritime security. Does that mean there could, for example, be joint naval exercises?
STEPHEN SMITH: That's one of the things that we're looking at, but that's down the track. We've developed and substantially enhanced our general relationship with Vietnam in the last half dozen years, but particularly so on the defence-to-defence and military-to-military front. In my last visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Minister Thanh and I agreed, that we would start an Annual Defence Ministers’ meeting, and so the one we had today in Canberra was our first. In my visit in 2010 in the margins of the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Plus Meeting, which Vietnam chaired, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding on defence cooperation.
So we're both maritime countries, so we want to enhance the engagement between our Navies and exercises down the track as a potential, but what we're doing in the meantime is we do a substantial program of English language training for personnel from the Vietnam People's Army and we're going to extend that to Navy, and we will continue visits by our ships to each country's respective ports.
JIM MIDDLETON: As you say, defence links between Australia and Vietnam have become much closer in recent times. Does it worry you or concern you at all that this will be perceived in Beijing as being part of Australia joining in some for of containing China's legitimate strategic interests?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, absolutely not. There is - of course, Vietnam and China are neighbours, but Australia is a long-standing-
JIM MIDDLETON: They're not only neighbours, Minister, but they're also at odds over the South China Sea. Talk of maritime security and increased cooperation surely is going to worry people in Beijing.
STEPHEN SMITH: You've made precisely the point that I was about to make, which is they are neighbours, they have a maritime or a territorial dispute in the South China Sea, and Australia's position, which is long-standing and well-known, is that we want such maritime or territorial disputes to be resolved amicably, to be resolved in accordance with international law including United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and we support, as an ASEAN dialogue partner and as a member of the East Asia Summit or the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Plus, we support the ASEAN code of conduct on seeking to resolve these matters. That's our long-standing position, and in my discussions today with General Thanh he also laid out Vietnam's well-known position, which is to resolve these matters amicably as well.
But we are a long-standing friend of ASEAN countries. We are ASEAN's first dialogue partner and we are members of the East Asia Summit, so it's no surprise to anyone that in addition to having a good and strong relationship with China we have good and strong relationships with countries in North Asia, whether that's the Republic of Korea or Japan, or in South East Asia with the ASEAN countries including the Philippines, which also has a maritime or territorial dispute with China, but to both China and the Philippines we say resolve these matters amicably in accordance with international law. Don't allow these matters to become causes of concern or causes for miscalculation or misjudgement.
JIM MIDDLETON: One final subject, and briefly. It is the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq. No less a figure than the chief of the Australian Defence Force at that time, General Peter Cosgrove, has acknowledged serious mistakes were made in Iraq in the wake of the conflict. Does it worry you that perhaps people of similar stature may be saying the same thing about Afghanistan 10 years from now?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, time will tell, but - and this is not said too critically of anyone - the real judgement that people need to make is the judgement at the time, and there's any number of people out there today on the 10th anniversary saying that Iraq was a mistake, and they were either enthusiastic volunteers or cheer squad leaders for the engagement. In Australian terms, the political party of which I'm a member, the Labor Party, politically opposed that intervention, but we did a couple of important things. We said we opposed the intervention but we would support the troops when they were there and when they came back. That helped us get over a big mistake we made in the Indo-China or Vietnam intervention in the '60s and the '70s when there was a political dispute in Australia about the intervention, but we treated our troops badly when they came back.
So we want to honour the work that our troops did in Iraq, but Iraq is one of those illustrations, it's the easiest thing in the world to get in and the hardest thing in the world to get out. So when people make comments today, take them back to the judgements and the decisions and the comments they made at the time. The real cost to us, so far as Afghanistan was concerned, was that Iraq was a five or six year distraction, and if Iraq had not occurred we would've been out of Afghanistan and transitioned out of Afghanistan by a number of years, possible as many as five or six.
JIM MIDDLETON: Minister, we will leave it there. Thank you very much.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim, thanks very much.