TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH PAUL MURRAY, 6PR - PERTH
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 2 AUGUST 2012
TOPICS: US Force Posture; China; Bruce Springsteen.
PAUL MURRAY: Welcome to the program now, Stephen Smith, our Minister for Defence. G’day, Stephen.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Paul.
PAUL MURRAY: Stephen, have the Americans ever raised directly with your Government the intention to base naval assets at HMAS Stirling?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, the only thing that we’ve spoken about in general terms has been enhanced access or greater access to US ships through HMAS Stirling, our Indian Ocean port, but that’s very much the third priority in the three things that we have been discussing and implementing with the United States. The first you referred to, of course, is the rotation of Marines through Darwin starting with 250 and that’ll grow to 2500 over the next four or five years. That’s on a six-month rotation.
What we’re now about to look at is greater aerial access to our northern RAAF bases but we haven’t started that discussion and much further down the track we’ll have a discussion about greater access to US ships in HMAS Stirling but that hasn’t begun yet. The report you referred to yesterday was a report commissioned by the US Congress. It’s an independent think tank report. It doesn’t have the status of a report which is authored or adopted by the US administration.
PAUL MURRAY: Yes, I know, but it goes to the Armed Services Committee next week and it’s clearly setting out some policy options for them for the future.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the policy basis on which the Australian Government has proceeded and the Obama Administration has proceeded is that there are no US military bases in Australia and there won’t be. So, US military bases aren’t in contemplation in Australia.
We have a joint facility, Pine Gap - that’s the classic illustration – but so far as US Defense personnel are concerned, they have access to our facilities and what we’ve been discussing and looking at and the basis of the agreement announced by the Prime Minister in the course of President Obama’s visit is enhanced access to our facilities, starting with marines in Darwin, then with greater aerial access in our northern airfields and down the track, as India grows and the importance of the Indian Ocean rim grows, greater naval access to HMAS Stirling.
But historically, of course, access by US personnel to our facilities has occurred on an ongoing basis. The alliance between Australia and the United States is over 60 years old. What we’re essentially doing is enhancing or adding to arrangements that have been in place for a long period of time and those arrangements have served us well, just as our alliance with the United States has served us well, just as the United States presence in the Asia Pacific has served our region well and that’s why we welcome the United States’ focus and proposed enhanced engagement in our region.
PAUL MURRAY: I’m not being cynical here, Stephen, but you could see that what is called enhanced access to these facilities could quite easily move on to basing. I mean, the access is just the thin edge of the wedge.
STEPHEN SMITH: We’ve made it very clear, and this the whole basis of the agreement between the United States Administration and the Australian Government and it’s what I’ve said publicly and what the Prime Minister has said publicly, we’re not talking about United States military bases. The Marines in Darwin, for example, arrive in Darwin then go to our training fields in the Northern Territory. They’re there on a six-month rotation. Enhanced aerial access envisages essentially flying in and flying out.
Now, these things have occurred in the past. We have enhanced our engagement and arrangements and, in my view, that’s an unambiguously good thing but we are not proposing to start the process which would see United States military bases in Australia. We don’t have them and there’s no proposal to have them.
PAUL MURRAY: So, are you saying that there’s a firm line in the sand there, that this doesn’t just become a moveable feast over time?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have been very, very conscious about making sure that what occurs are essentially rotations or enhanced access. We have a very successful joint facility which we operate at Pine Gap with the United States and that serves our national security interests very, very well.
As for the rest, it is access to our facilities and, as I say, that has been ongoing for decades. There’s nothing novel about that. We have sought in recent times to formalise that and we’ve sought in recent times, quite publicly - you can’t get more public than an announcement by the Prime Minister and the President – to indicate that we are seeking to add to those arrangements, starting with the marines, then with increased aerial access and down the track – this has very much been the third, the third cab off the rank – access, greater access to HMAS Stirling.
And people would know in Perth and south of Perth that it is not uncommon to see visits from US naval vessels at HMAS Stirling and I think the last - but one- time I was there, there was a United States submarine there and that’s what I stood in front of when I did my media. So, it’s no secret, it’s no surprise, but all of this is predicated on greater access. There are no US military bases in Australia and we’re not proposing to have any.
PAUL MURRAY: What stage are the talks at regarding the Americans’ interest in running surveillance operations out of the Cocos Islands?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, again, when this was raised in the media a few months ago, I said very clearly, this is not something which has been the subject of a conversation between me and my US counterparts, firstly. Secondly, our clear three areas of priority are marine rotation through Darwin, and that’s essentially on a four to five-year timetable, then looking at greater aviation or aerial access to our Northern Territory RAAF bases or our northern RAAF bases and then, third cab off the rank, HMAS Stirling.
So, we’re not proposing to have a conversation about Cocos Island. Cocos Island historically has been used from time to time. We land our aircraft there from time to time. But you might recall that last year I launched what I called our own Force Posture Review. That was made public early this year by the Prime Minister and I and that makes a very important point about Cocos Island, which is if you want to do more at Cocos Island you have to substantially enhance its infrastructure. And whilst there’s a bit of repair work underway to allow current arrangements to proceed, that’s not something which we are proposing to do and that has not been the subject of a conversation between me and my counterpart. So-
PAUL MURRAY: But it appears it is discussed at some level of government.
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no. Well, it was discussed by Australian officials with journalists and I made that clear at the time. This was one of those cases where officials got very much ahead of themselves. So, I think - there’s a general point here as well Paul - not said critically, it’s just the nature of life. The report that has caused all of this publicity is an independent think tank. It’s not a US Government document; it hasn’t been endorsed in terms of the detail by the United States Government but immediately people say well, that must have some status. The only status that it has is as an independent think tank reporting to Congress. And when journalists, commentators, officials speak publicly they don’t necessarily represent what is a strong policy view of either the United States Administration or the Australian Government as the case may be.
PAUL MURRAY: But it is how policy is developed.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, how policy is developed by the Australian Government and by me as Defence Minister is to sit down with my officials, map out what are the public policy framework and then to proceed accordingly. And we’ve done that very assiduously, very carefully so far as enhanced access is concerned to our facilities.
And this process started at the AUSMIN meeting where the Australian Foreign Minister and Defence Minister get together with the United States Defense Secretary and Secretary of State. This process started back in Melbourne in 2010 and Bob Gates, who was then the US Secretary for Defense, and I made it clear at the time that we were starting these discussions. That process went through for a year. We had further discussions at AUSMIN in San Francisco and then to coincide with the President’s visit, we made those announcements and the public policy framework was crystal clear.
We have joint facilities with the United States in Australia. Pine Gap is the classic illustration; that serves us well. We don’t have United States military bases; we are not proposing to have them. We are proposing greater access to US Defense Force personnel in the three areas that I have outlined. We had a substantive detailed conversation about Marines and we are progressing that through the system. We are doing a review of how the first 200-250 has gone and we’ll move to the next stage of 500 for the next dry season rotation. You can effectively only have a six month rotation because of the wet season in the Northern Territory.
PAUL MURRAY: Yeah.
STEPHEN SMITH: We will probably have a conversation about enhanced aerial access at this year’s AUSMIN meeting which is scheduled to be in Perth towards the end of the year, but we’re just starting that conversation in terms of enhanced aerial or aviation access.
PAUL MURRAY: Finally Stephen, what do you think China makes of Australia’s involvement in these ongoing – this ongoing debate around what many in China see as America’s desire to contain them militarily and economically in this region?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ve said this before. I said it China, I’ve said it in Australia, and I’ve said it in the United States. I don’t believe it is possible to contain a country of a billion people whether it’s China or India. And when I went recently to China to meet formally with my Defence counterpart, General Liang, I said to him, if you’re concerned about Australia’s military alliance with the United States which has served us well for 60 years – over 40 of those 60 years we’ve grown our relationship with China, from early recognition of them back in the 1970s under the Whitlam Government, to a comprehensive bilateral relationship, and the two are not inconsistent. The two can be win-win.
But I said to General Liang and I said publicly in China, if you’re concerned about 250 marines in Darwin it’s not because you’re concerned about Australia, it’s because you’re worried or concerned about your relationship with the United States. And the point I made last night, when I delivered a speech to one of our own think tanks here, is the most important bilateral relationship at the moment is the relationship between China and the United States. They’ve got a very strong economic engagement just as Australia has a strong economic engagement with China.
What we need the United States and China to do is to grow their political, their strategic, their defence and their military relationship to the same level so that we don’t have, what I call, strategic competition between United States and China, but we have an understanding that as China grows and as India grows, the world will move from where you have one superpower – the United States – to where you have two and ultimately three – the United States, China and India. So, the relationship between those three countries - all in our region and as you know when you look out of your window, you look out on the Indian Ocean not the Pacific Ocean. All of those three countries are absolutely crucial to prosperity and peace and security in our region.
So, we say to China, as I do to the United States, you have to grow your relationship with China or the United States as the case may be so that the strategic relationship, the political relationship, the military and defence relationship is of the same order as your economic engagement. That’s the way that we will maximise peace and prosperity in our own region.
PAUL MURRAY: Didn’t quote any American rock stars in that speech last night did you?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, mate. I am soft on Bruce. I saw Bruce when I was a student in the United Kingdom back in the early 1980s but I’ve always had much more of a soft spot for Nick Cave- and I put that on the public record. And I’ve confessed that to Peter Garrett.
PAUL MURRAY: Thanks a lot. Good on you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Paul. Thanks mate, cheers.