TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH KIERAN GILBERT, SKY AM AGENDA
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 7 JUNE 2012
TOPICS: Australia-China relations; Defence White Paper.
KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, thanks for joining us from Beijing. Can I start by asking you, can you clarify why you and your entourage left your mobile phones and laptops in Hong Kong? Was it as a precaution against Chinese espionage?
STEPHEN SMITH: Any Government Minister, whether it's in Australia, whether it's travelling abroad is entitled to take precautions and make arrangements to protect the confidentiality of ministerial communications so, as I've said previously, this is nothing exceptional, it's nothing unusual. It's not the first time that arrangements have been made.
So in the modern world, it's not just Government Ministers or government officials but private enterprise, industry and commerce often take similar precautions, make similar arrangements, so it's simply to ensure the confidentiality of government communications whilst at home and abroad.
KIERAN GILBERT: Do you find the revelation of this, that you've left your electronic devices elsewhere before your visit to Beijing, that that's a bit embarrassing ahead of your high level meetings there?
STEPHEN SMITH: To me it's not exceptional, it's not unusual, it's not extraordinary. Government Ministers make necessary arrangements to protect the confidentiality of their communications and in the modern day, as I say, it's not just Government officials, whether from Australia or other countries, it's also members of industry so these days people take precautions to make sure that their communications are kept confidential and it's not the first such occasion where comparable arrangements have been put in place. So I don't see it in any way as being unusual, exceptional or frankly notable and it won't come as a surprise to colleagues in Australia, colleagues overseas and it won't come as a surprise to industry either.
KIERAN GILBERT: Have your electronic devices been compromised before on similar trips?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not proposing to go into that sort of detail. Comparable arrangements have been made on different Ministerial visits. There are different arrangements for different delegations overseas. It's simply an extension of the modern day of Ministers taking steps, necessary precautions, arrangements to protect the confidentiality of their communications. That's done in Australia, it's done overseas.
KIERAN GILBERT: Let's get on to some of your talks now and I know the Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, had concerns expressed to him during his visit to China that the US military ties, the enhanced military ties are a throwback to the Cold War era. It seems that you had similar concerns expressed to you yesterday at the China Institute for International Strategic Studies, during that question and answer session, a number of intelligence figures worried that Australia has its legs in two different boats, as they described it.
STEPHEN SMITH: It was certainly put to me at the open dialogue session I had, firstly at the National Defense University the day I arrived and also yesterday at the Centre for International Strategic Studies.
I have to say that in terms of my official meetings with Defense Minister Liang and also Vice President Xi that these matters were mentioned in passing, they weren't dwelled upon. I think a couple of important points are worth making, firstly, I've made it clear that there's nothing inconsistent with our alliance with the United States which has lasted for over 60 years, and our ongoing, comprehensive relationship with China, the 40th Anniversary of diplomatic relations that we celebrate this year and that's part of the reason for my trip.
Secondly, I've made the point that in the modern era, where we have changing strategic circumstances, the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the ASEAN economies combined, that the most important bilateral relationship, to make sure that we have ongoing stability and peace and security and also opportunities for prosperity and investment, the most important relationship is that between China and the United States. And just as we've urged the United States in the past, so I've urged China while I'm here, whilst I'm here in all of my meetings, that that relationship has to be one that's positive, that is constructive and also one that sees mutual respect and trust, whether that's as part of the economic aspects of the relationship or the military to military and defence-to-defence relationship aspects.
KIERAN GILBERT: You're calling for greater openness and transparency - you did so in your speech yesterday - when it comes to the Chinese military build-up but how will that message be received, that broader transparency message, just days after there were reports in Australia of a secret chapter in our Defence White Paper, specifically related to China?
STEPHEN SMITH: As I did before my departure from Australia, on the weekend, as I've done here both at the Centre for International Strategic Studies and in media back home, that assertion is a nonsense. There's no such secret chapter.
So I've made it clear both publicly here that the 2009 White Paper was not aimed at China, the 2013 White Paper will not be aimed at China and also I was asked directly about assertions about containment of China. It's not possible to contain a country of 1.3 billion people.
The only way forward for our region, for China, for the United States, for India, for Japan and the rest of the key countries in our region, is by positive, constructive bilateral and regional relationships and I welcome very much, for example, that General Liang, the Defense Minister, visited the United States recently, the first such visit by a Chinese Defense Minister in nearly a decade, in nine years, and that was positive and constructive and we're very much looking forward to Defense Secretary Panetta visiting China later this year.
And General Liang, my counterpart, gave me an extensive brief on the conversations that he had had with Leon Panetta, the US Defense Secretary and I've made the point here on a number of occasions that that relationship is the key, very much the key to peace and stability and security in our part of the world in the first part of this century.
KIERAN GILBERT: You mentioned you're going to visit China's main naval command centre today, the South Sea Fleet today. What are you hoping to see and hear from your counterparts during this visit today?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's a courtesy that's been extended to me. That's very much appreciated. It's comparable, for example, to what I did in India, doing formal bilateral meetings and then inspecting one of the naval facilities. We want to enhance our navy to navy and maritime engagement with China. In recent years we've seen live firing exercises, we've seen visits to China by Australian ships and we'll see a reciprocal visit in the course of this year so we are keen to enhance our naval practical exercise engagement so it's part of that but it's also an opportunity just to examine the facilities that the Chinese have in the south.
We're a maritime country, a maritime continent so these matters are very important to us and, as I say, we are keen to enhance or Navy to Navy engagement so it's part of that as well.
KIERAN GILBERT: You met Xi Jinping yesterday. He's set to become the Chairman of the Communist Party in October and President next year, the heir apparent. What's your sense? Can the international community expect more of the same from the Chinese leadership? Do you anticipate stability from him in terms of the Chinese approach?
STEPHEN SMITH: My conversation with him was very much about how the Australia-China relationship has progressed over 40 years. He has visited my own home state of Western Australia on a couple of occasions so he's very fond of Western Australia. We had a good conversation about our growing economic relationship and the strength over 40 years since our early recognition of China and our early adoption of the One China policy. So it was a warm and friendly and positive conversation about the bilateral relationship generally.
We didn't traverse other issues but it's the third time that I've met him. I met him here formally a couple of years ago, a very relaxed conversation and if he emerges as China's leader then I'm very confident that Australia will be able to work with him in a positive and constructive way.
KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, I appreciate your time there. Thanks very much.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Kieran, thanks very much.