TRANSCRIPT: EXCERPTS FROM INTERVIEW WITH JIM MIDDLETON, NEWSLINE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 28 August 2013
TOPICS: Syria; US rebalance. ADMM+.
JIM MIDDLETON: Minister, welcome to the program.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim, pleasure.
JIM MIDDLETON: Syria first: the United States has an awful lot of balls in the air at the moment. Can it manage yet another military entanglement, or the prospect of it in the Middle East, especially all the other strategic imperatives? Especially those of rebalancing its Forces towards the Indo-Pacific.
STEPHEN SMITH: The United States, Australia, the rest of the international community, can't turn a blind eye to what's occurred in Syria. There's clearly now a preponderance of evidence that chemical weapons have been used. There's a preponderance of evidence pointing to the regime, there's still a bit more work and evidence that needs to be effected. But Australia, the United States, other members of international community have made the point that if chemical weapons have been used, and their use has been authorised by the regime, then the international community can't turn a blind eye.
Now, what the response is, time will tell. In an ideal world, any response would be authorised by the United Nations. But the world's not ideal, but whatever response is effected does have to have broad base support within and throughout the international community, and that's why you've seen President Obama and other leaders throughout the world engaged in discussions as to what an appropriate response might be.
JIM MIDDLETON: What about the pressures, though, on the US Defense Budget and its assets? President Obama is serious when he says he wants to move more US Forces into the Indo-Pacific to meet the strategic challenges there, and yet once again we see another flare-up in the Middle East which is intended, if what we hear publicly is the case, to be a precision strike, but the history of these things is that they had to be creeping involvements involving the US, both Iraq notably, also Afghanistan, for example.
STEPHEN SMITH: We need to take it step by step. We need to see what is proposed by way of intervention. I think there's a starting point which is a reluctance to put troops on the ground, a very firm reluctance on the part of the international community and the United States for that to occur. Secretary Hagel has made clear that he has presented to the President an array of options-
JIM MIDDLETON: But this is not going to be the end of the matter. This might give President Assad a bloody nose, but it's not going to lead to the toppling of his regime, and that means there are many further problems down the track that will have to be dealt with now you've gone this far.
STEPHEN SMITH: Australia has made it clear that we think the sooner that President Assad leaves the stage, then the better chance there is for stability, peace and security in Syria because we are seeing terrible atrocities occur in Syria, which we condemn, and that's apart from the horrific use of chemical weapons. We see a flow of refugees from Syria to other adjoining countries - Jordan, Lebanon and the like. So we want to see a stable Syria, but we can't turn a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons.
In terms of your earlier question about the United States rebalance, President Obama, Secretary Hagel and his predecessor have made it clear that whatever occurs in terms of the pressure the United States is under for Defence expenditure, just as Australia and comparable countries are, that won't affect the rebalancing to the Asia Pacific. But any response in Syria, my instinct is that will be targeted, it will be proportionate and will send a signal that not just the United States but the international community condemn the use of chemical weapons and that can't go unnoticed. We can't turn a blind eye to that.
JIM MIDDLETON: There is pressure, too, on the Australian Defence budget. In that context, I wonder what you make of comments like those in key US opinion leaders, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in particular effectively accusing Australia of taking a free ride, quote unquote, under the US defence umbrella.
STEPHEN SMITH: I reject that analysis. From time to time I see former US officials, former Australian officials, make their remarks. Invariably, they don't mirror or replicate or coincide with the discussions and commentary and remarks I get from current officials, whether it's Secretary Hagel, Secretary Panetta or Secretary Gates. And each of those have said that they value very much the contribution that Australia makes. Nothing we have done in defence expenditure has had an adverse impact on our Alliance relationship or, for example, our overseas contributions, whether it's Afghanistan, East Timor or the Solomon Islands.
JIM MIDDLETON: You're off to Brunei for a pretty significant meeting with the ASEAN Defence Ministers, also the US and Russia will be there, Chuck Hagel from the United States obviously. Does it disappoint you that in your time, not only as Defence Minister but also as Australia's Foreign Minister, there's been so little movement, such little movement on the key strategic question of the South China Sea, a most important and increasingly important trade route for the world?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, on the contrary, I am going to the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus meeting, which is essentially a Defence Ministers meeting in the expanded East Asia Summit format. Our second meeting. First meeting was in Hanoi three years ago, and that is-
JIM MIDDLETON: That was dominated by the South China Sea. There's been little movement since then.
STEPHEN SMITH: There hasn't been a solution but it's not as if there hasn't been attention, either by ASEAN or by China or by the East Asia Summit. But what I am pleased about is we've seen, since our time in office, Australia work very hard to see the United States and Russia join the East Asia Summit. We continue to urge China and ASEAN to agree on so-called code of conduct to resolve these disputes, and we will put those views to a meeting in Brunei as we have at other international and regional forums.
JIM MIDDLETON: Australia has proposed splitting the political from the resource issues as far as the South China Sea is concerned. Have you raised that with your ASEAN and Chinese counterparts and will it be something that you will be putting forward at this meeting in Brunei?
STEPHEN SMITH: Both Bob Carr and I have made the point to various interlocutors on this issue over the years that one way through, one way to seek to resolve a maritime or territory dispute, particularly where there are resource implications, mineral or petroleum resource implications to contemplate joint developments. And we want these disputes resolved peacefully, in accordance with international law, and if you can resolve them in a way in which there is mutual and joint development, that is one way of not just resolving the matter from a security point of view, it's also resolving the matter with benefits so far as prosperity, trade and investment are concerned.
JIM MIDDLETON: Minister, you have been very generous to this program over the years. We thank you very much, and happy travels.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim. Thanks very much.