TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JIM MIDDLETON, NEWSLINE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 21 May 2013
TOPICS: Australia-US Alliance; South Pacific Defence Ministers' Meeting.
JIM MIDDLETON: The United States may be shifting its strategic focus from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific. As its decade-long military presence in Afghanistan winds down, Australia's again looking at its own backyard. The recent Defence White Paper focuses on what is termed the Indo-Pacific arc. Australia's Defence Minister is Stephen Smith, and he's in Washington for talks with his US counterpart Chuck Hagel. Minister, welcome to the program.
STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure, Jim.
JIM MIDDLETON: Big day in Washington. What are the priorities for you for this particular visit?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we'll be talking about the absolute importance of the alliance relationship, both to Australia and to the United States, how we've enhanced our practical cooperation in the last few years, rotating marines through Darwin and the prospect of a greater enhanced aerial access to our Northern Australian airports and, down the track, greater naval access to our Indian Ocean port in Western Australia, HMAS Stirling.
It's a good chance to catch up, the first time that Secretary Hagel and I have met in person, although we've spoken over the phone, and also a good chance for me to take United States officials, including the Secretary, through our Defence White Paper and the recent Budget.
JIM MIDDLETON: President Obama recently announced plans to boost total US spending, and I stress total, in the Asia-Pacific by around seven per cent. That's quite a jump, especially for a country whose economy's still struggling. Do you detect any concern in Washington that the US is still shouldering so much of the load in what is an increasingly important strategic area?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, US officials were pleased that in the recent Australian Budget we were able to get a modest increase in defence spending. Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, comparable countries have all been facing difficulties on defence spending, and here the talk of the town when it comes to defence spending is sequestration.
But we've made it clear that we, over the last two years, have made sure we've quarantined from any fiscal restraint our overseas operations, in particular Afghanistan, but also our capacity to continue to engage with our alliance partner in our region. And the President and officials have made it clear that despite sequestration and despite US fiscal difficulty, they don't want to do anything to diminish the so-called rebalance, and that's an unambiguously good thing.
JIM MIDDLETON: You've been talking for some time about the significance of the Indo-Pacific arc. How important is it now for Australia to focus its resources on the growing strategic issues within the region, questions like the growing maritime presence and interest of China in the Indian Ocean, for example?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the White Paper makes it absolutely clear that, in Australian strategic terms, we've entered the Indo-Pacific into the strategic lexicon. The arc strictly stretches from the United States Pacific Coastline to the Indian Ocean - as one [indistinct] has put it to me, from Hollywood to Bollywood, and it reflects that - the fact that not only do we see now two great powers, the United States and China, but down the track we'll see three great powers - United States, China and India, and the key to ongoing prosperity and stability is to make sure that the individual bilateral relationships between those three countries are productive and they have good relations, not just economically but also politically, strategically, and on the military-to-military and defence-to-defence side.
So it just reflects the fact that economic weight, strategic weight, military weight, political and strategic importance and influence, is moving to our part of the world and, from Australia's perspective, the White Paper also makes it clear that whilst we obviously have a keen interest in the whole swathe of the Indo-Pacific, our immediate area of responsibility and operation is the South Pacific and Timor-Leste and also South East Asia, and that's with the draw-down from Afghanistan which, of course, has also been the subject of discussions over here.
With the draw-down from Afghanistan, we've got the chance now to enhance the exercise the exercise, the training, and our collaboration with countries in the South Pacific and South East Asia, and that'll be very important to us as we go forward.
JIM MIDDLETON: Speaking of the South Pacific, before this US visit you met Pacific Defence Ministers in Tonga. Isn't that a tacit and perhaps overdue admission of the importance of addressing the growing influence and power of China within the Pacific, which is also one of the underpinnings, I think, of the White Paper too?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I saw that - I've seen that reference. I think it's overstated. I went to Tonga, together with my New Zealand, my Papua New Guinea colleagues. We sat down and it's the first time that Defence Ministers in the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Papua New Guinea - we also invited Chile, which is a Pacific country, and also France because of its interest in the Pacific itself, and met formally for the first time.
I think it really reflects that, having spent more than 10 years with overseas operations in Afghanistan, the high tempo in Afghanistan and peace stabilisation missions in the Solomon Islands and in Timor-Leste itself, it was a chance to go back, in a sense, to home base. And so we've agreed that we'll meet annually as South Pacific Defence Ministers.
It's - again, some people interpret some or all or everything of what we do as aimed at China. It's not. China is entitled to pursue its interests in the Pacific, just as entitled to pursue its interests in the Indo-Pacific generally.
JIM MIDDLETON: Better let you get on with it, Minister. Thank you very much.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim, thanks very much.
JIM MIDDLETON: Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith in Washington.