TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH MELISSA CLARKE, ABC 24
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 2 AUGUST 2012
TOPICS: US Force Posture; China; Defence White Paper.
MELISSA CLARKE: I'm joined by the Defence Minister Stephen Smith here in the Canberra studios. Thanks for being with us.
STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure.
MELISSA CLARKE: So, you've ruled out the idea of the US having a naval base at HMAS Stirling or anywhere else in Australia, but is it an idea worth considering?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have a joint facility or joint facilities with the United States in Australia. We've had those for a long time and Pine Gap is the obvious illustration. Other than that, United States Defence personnel have access to our facilities.
And when the President was here in November last year, he and the Prime Minister announced a range of enhanced practical cooperation which would see greater access to our facilities; And the first stage - first priority of that was the marine rotation - six month rotation through Darwin.
MELISSA CLARKE: But is there any benefit in having, say, a stand-alone US base that would be worth Australia considering given the strategic importance and what that might be able to offer across the north and north-west for Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, just to finish the priority of what we're dealing with. At that time we also agreed that the second matter we'd look at would be enhanced aerial access to our Northern Territory or northern RAAF bases. We haven't yet gone through the detail of that but we are looking, in the near future, to starting a detailed discussion about that greater access.
I made it clear at the time that down the track, because of the growth of India, the importance of the Indian Ocean rim that in due course we'd also look at greater naval access to HMAS Stirling, our Indian Ocean port. So, the only thing we will consider will be greater access.
The study which has come out overnight is a study by an independent think tank. It was commissioned by the US Department of Defence at the request of Congress. It has a covering letter from the Secretary of State for Defence in the United States and some comments from him and he makes it clear that he doesn't endorse the proposal in it. A lot of it is consistent with the US rebalance.
So, it's a suggestion by an independent think tank. It's not one we're proposing to take up.
MELISSA CLARKE: Some read that as Washington flying a kite, so to speak, getting the idea raised so that they can test the waters, see what the public reaction in Australia and elsewhere is to this kind of idea under the cover of a think tank study. Is there any credibility in that perspective of this?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, people should do a couple of things. Firstly, they should look at the facts and not think angles and secondly, they should be very careful about seeking to ascribe the view of an independent think tank, which has been presented publicly as a requirement by the US Congress, as in any way reflecting the view of the United States Government.
We have made it crystal clear from the first moment. We don't have United States military bases in Australia; we don't see the need for that. We have an alliance that's been going for greater than - for longer than 60 years and as part of that, in recent times, we have sought to substantially enhance the practical cooperation starting with a rotation of marines in Darwin.
So far as the north of Australia, the north-west - some time ago I commissioned our own Force Posture Review which the Prime Minister and I released in March of this year. That will be considered as part of the white paper processes, but it is clear that we have to look very carefully at the way in which we are positioned to our northern and western approaches, and that will be one of the focuses of the white paper.
MELISSA CLARKE: On that troop rotation, one of the analysts from the Lowy Institute today is saying that there's still arguments going on between the Australian Government and the US Government about how that's paid for, about how some elements of that troop rotation is funded. Has that been settled between the two nations?
STEPHEN SMITH: In terms of the fine details [indistinct] there are a range of conversations going on amongst officials. Cost sharing now and into the future is one of those things; that's pretty much standard fare. So, some of those discussions about the detail are ongoing because-
MELISSA CLARKE: So, that's not sorted even though the rotations have already begun?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there was an agreement about cost for the 250 Marines who came in the first rotation. We're scaling that up over a period of five years to 2500 and there are a whole range of detailed discussions that are going on about the future. We've made it clear that at each stage in the process we will review arrangements and move forward. So, there's no difficulty or surprise in that.
MELISSA CLARKE: Can I ask you on another topic, Japan has recently released its Defence white paper and it's certainly raised some eyebrows with South Korea over some of the issues with territorial claims and China as well with the posturing there. Do you have any concerns that tensions between Japan and its major neighbours and our major neighbours like South Korea and China might make it more difficult for military and strategic cooperation in the future? Because South Korea is suggesting it could well be hampered in cooperation.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, so far as South Korea is concerned, the major provocation to South Korea is of course North Korea and its conduct. And South Korea has been very, very restrained in that respect. So far as its relations with its neighbours are concerned, it's not unique in North Asia for there to be maritime or territorial disputes or claims.
And as a general proposition, whether it involves the Republic of Korea, Japan, China or other countries, Australia's position is quite straight forward. We want these maritime or territorial disputes to be settled amicably in accordance with international law, in accordance with the Law of the Sea. We don't want these issues to become causes for concern or for misjudgement or miscalculations. So, the same applies to any maritime or territorial issues generally.
MELISSA CLARKE: But has that happened in this case with Japan's Defence white paper? Has that unnecessarily [indistinct] the issue?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, I don't believe so. It's a good thing that countries publish white papers on a regular basis. Japan does that as do we, as does the United States and as does China. It's a good thing that occurs.
MELISSA CLARKE: Now yesterday, you gave an update on the 2013 Defence White Paper which you're pulling together and I just want to ask about one aspect in particular. On China, you spoke about the challenge being to raise the level of political and strategic engagement to the same level as economic engagement, and you also talk about the global financial crisis shaping our Defence and strategic realm. How much importance and how much has that perhaps changed in recent years, of having economic issues play an important part in focusing our Defence priorities?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I wouldn't analyse it in that way that the financial constraints determine our national security strategic outlook. It's a relevant material consideration because the 2009 White Paper said the single biggest economic challenge was the global financial crisis and the adverse consequences of that continue.
In this way, as Leon Panetta, my US counterpart, said at the Shangri-La Dialogue, we face a new fiscal reality. We have to balance the fiscal reality with the national security reality. But so far as China is concerned, the point I made last night is that both in the case of Australia and the United States there is an intense economic engagement. Particularly so far as the United States is concerned because the single most important bilateral relationship now and into the future will be between the United States and China.
China and the United States have to lift their relationship so that the intense economic engagement is matched by a similar political strategic military and defence engagement. We want to see an enhancement of that level of engagement so that we don't have what I describe as strategic competition between the United States and China. The future, in very many respects, will be determined by a positive and constructive relationship between the United States and China and subsequently between those two and India.
MELISSA CLARKE: And we'll keep seeing that developing. Stephen Smith, thanks very much for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.