TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH SABRA LANE, ABC AM
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 28 MARCH 2012
TOPICS: Cocos Islands; US Force Posture Review; AusAID worker
SABRA LANE: Mr Smith, good morning and welcome to AM.
STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure, Sabra.
SABRA LANE: Last year you said greater utilisation of the Cocos Islands was a prospect down the track. The US is obviously very keen, given media reporting from there overnight. How soon could it happen?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think people have to be very careful not to get ahead of themselves here, whether they're officials or whether they're commentators.
I made it clear last year in the run-up to the announcement by the Prime Minister and President Obama about a rotation of some marine task force group members through Darwin that we were looking really at three priorities: the task force presence in Darwin on a rotational basis, then greater air traffic or air movement through northern Australia, and thirdly in the longer term, greater access to our Indian Ocean port HMAS Stirling in my own state of Western Australia.
I also indicated that down the track Cocos was a possibility but there have been no discussions that I've had with my counterparts, whether that's Bob Gates or Leon Panetta, about any of the detail of that. It's a long term prospect and should be treated as such.
SABRA LANE: It would though be an ideal location to base unmanned patrol planes to keep watch on the world's busiest shipping routes, the South China Sea, and protect Australia's own valuable assets and energy interests.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's not currently ideal because one of the first things that we would have to do and this has been agreed between me and my counterparts - is a substantial infrastructure upgrade, particularly so far as the air field is concerned. And that's one of the reasons why this is very much a long term prospect.
So again I say that people should not get ahead of themselves. Our priority in this area in terms of the United States Global Force Posture Review and our own Force Posture Review are what we're doing with the rotation of the marine task force in the Northern Territory, what we're proposing to do in terms of greater US air access to our Northern Territory or northern Australia air fields, and then greater naval access through our Indian Ocean port as the Indian Ocean and India are on the rise.
So this is very much a long term possibility and again I say, the point that I made and the Prime Minister made yesterday, there have been no discussions about the detail or any decisions about the detail of Cocos. It's very much a long term prospect.
SABRA LANE: But the US has made no secret of its interest. It currently leases the Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia from the Brits and that lease expires in 2016.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well again as I say, I have conversations with my own counterparts. Recently for example the Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was in Australia. I had a meeting with him. We spoke about what was occurring in the Northern Territory. We spoke about the need for greater access to our naval base in HMAS Stirling as a result of the importance of the Indian Ocean rim growing.
We didn't have a conversation about Cocos because we have a very clear understanding from our AUSMIN (Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations) talks in Melbourne in November 2010, our AUSMIN talks in San Francisco in September 2011 and the Prime Minister and the President's announcement here last year in November about what the priorities are.
So again I just counsel people, don't get ahead of yourself whether you are a commentator or whether you are an official. This is very much a long term possibility. There have been no discussions or decisions at the level at which I operate.
SABRA LANE: You talked about the Force Posture Review. An interim report of that review actually pointed and suggested that the Cocos would be an ideal location but it would be upgraded. You just mentioned yourself that there would be a substantial upgrade required.
What kind of upgrades are you referring to?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think on the public record there, if you are proposing to utilise Cocos Island down the track for greater aerial access or aerial use, then the first thing you need to do is to substantially upgrade infrastructure of the airport.
Now my memory of the costing of that was somewhere between $75 and $100 million but no-one is proposing or suggesting that that occur in the first instance or in the near future.
SABRA LANE: You talked also about the increased utilisation of the naval base in Perth, HMAS Stirling. How advanced are those talks there?
STEPHEN SMITH: As the Prime Minister made it clear yesterday, we're dealing with this in our order of priority which is the marines rotating through the Northern Territory, then greater air access and then greater access to our naval facility in HMAS Stirling on our west coast.
We have focused, and this was the substance of the conversation for example I had with Kurt Campbell last week, we focused on bedding down the rotational arrangements for the marines through the Northern Territory.
The first 250 of that task force arrive in early April, next month.
So our focus has been bedding down those arrangements and as the Prime Minister said yesterday, there really hasn't been a substantial or substantive progressing of the conversation since the president's visit in November. We've focused on bedding down those Northern Territory arrangements.
SABRA LANE: The US has previously talked about the need to have greater resources in the region for humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery and the like. Some people would be scratching their heads and thinking, 'Well how do aircraft carriers and nuclear power subs have a role in all of that?'
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we've made it clear that one of the advantages of having a marine task force in the Northern Territory is that not only will they do exercises; we can do exercises with them.
And in the last couple of weeks Bob Carr and I have had our Indonesian counterparts in Australia. I've had my Singaporean counterpart here And all of us have spoken in terms of the potential for doing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises utilising not just Australia and the United States but also ASEAN countries. And that's one of the things that Bob Carr and I announced that we would be progressing.
But the use of Australian facilities by our US alliance partner is effectively a logical extension of an alliance that has served us well for over 60 years. It also reflects the ongoing engagement and indeed proposals to enhance engagement by the United States in the Asia Pacific region.
We strongly support that. The presence of the United States in the Asia Pacific has been a force for peace and security and prosperity since the end of World War II.
SABRA LANE: Mr Smith, if I could ask you about the AusAID worker who was injured in Afghanistan, The West Australian is reporting this morning that a young boy detonated the suicide device that injured David Savage. Is that your information, that a child was used as a suicide bomber?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well obviously there will be an exhaustive assessment of that. The preliminary advice that I've got and the Minister for Foreign Affairs has is yes, it was a suicide bomb attack. We express our condolences to the family and friends of the injured Australian worker. He's been transported to Germany where I'm told he's in a serious but stable condition.
SABRA LANE: Was Mr Savage targeted? And if it was a child, that would have to be a very worrying development here.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, two things- it's too early to make that assessment in terms of targeting. He was subject to force protection by International Security Assistance Force members, not Australian Defence Force members. But we'll get an exhaustive assessment of that.
The use of children in such matters, if it's occurred in this instance, is absolutely contemptible. We've seen in the past Taliban using children of very early ages to engage in such activities and we treat that with nothing but contempt.
SABRA LANE: The Taliban apparently has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it's in direct retaliation for the killing of 17 Afghans by a US soldier. Just your reaction to that and are you looking to boost security for the civilian component in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a number of things there. Firstly the civilian, the attack on the civilians by the US defence personnel was a terrible event and I've made it clear in the past was very much a setback. But we're working our way through that.
So far as the force protection measures are concerned, the force protection measures were provided by International Security Assistance Force. There will be an automatic review of those arrangements. But to date we have been satisfied, not just with the force protection measures that the Australian Defence Force personnel provide for Australian aid workers and civilians, but satisfied with the force protection measures provided by our friends and our partners in Afghanistan. But that'll be the subject of a review in the usual way.
SABRA LANE: Mr Smith, thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Sabra, thanks very much.