TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH TONY JONES, LATELINE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 3 April 2013
TOPICS: Bali Process; Defence cooperation with Indonesia; US Marine rotations; DPRK.
TONY JONES: Stephen Smith, thanks for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure, Tony.
TONY JONES: Now, did you discuss with President Yudhoyono or Defence Minister Purnomo whether Indonesia is prepared to play a greater role in stemming the flow of asylum seekers from their ports to Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it was mentioned in passing at the so-called "Two Plus Two" meeting, which is the two Defence ministers and the two Foreign ministers. It wasn't mentioned in our call with the President, again other than in passing, because Foreign Minister Carr and Immigration Minister O'Connor dealt with those matters exhaustively with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and his ministerial colleagues at the Bali Process in Bali yesterday.
So, those matters were dealt with by Bob Carr and Brendan O'Connor yesterday. Other than reflecting upon the fact that it's another area where there is intense practical cooperation between Australia and Indonesia, it was really dealt with yesterday.
TONY JONES: You would have seen the Indonesian press release which suggested otherwise. They said it was on the agenda to discuss this, and they went on to say that Australia wants Indonesia to play a role in handling the problem - a greater role is what's implied here.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've seen that press release, and I don't characterise it in the way that you do. And I listen to what my Ministerial colleagues, whether it's Defence Minister Purnomo or Foreign Minister Natalegawa, and yes, there is no doubt that historically and currently we regard people smugglers, asylum seekers, movement of boat people as being an issue of concern between Australia and Indonesia.
It's a highly sensitive issue, it's in the spotlight. But the most important thing is working together, not just bilaterally, but working together within our region to do everything we can to stop the movement so that people don't continue to put themselves at risk on the high seas. And that's been our effort, both over the period of time we've been in government, but also the effort yesterday through my ministerial colleagues at the Bali Process, which is the regional forum where these things are properly discussed.
TONY JONES: Did you ask the Indonesian Government about what they think about the prospect of Australian naval vessels being used to turn asylum seeker boats back?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, I didn't. It may have come up for discussion at yesterday's meetings, but we know what Indonesia's view of that is. Foreign Minister Natalegawa has been very forthright in his comments about the impractical nature of that proposal, as has the current Chief of Navy and former Chiefs of Navy - about the dangers that that poses to Australian Defence Force personnel and to people on the high seas.
So, Indonesia has been robust about its view of that matter in the past, and my memory is that on the two or three occasions where the Leader of the Opposition has had the opportunity of raising that matter with President Yudhoyono or Indonesian interlocutors, he's failed to do so, and probably for the very good reason that we all know what Indonesia's view is.
TONY JONES: Are you saying that you've spoken to the current Chief of the Australian Navy, and he opposes this idea?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's not just a matter of me speaking to him, it's the evidence that he has given from memory at the last two, if not the last three successive Senate Estimates hearings where he has made - as Chief of Navy - his view crystal clear about the dangers that that poses to Navy personnel and the dangers and the risks that that carries to people on the high seas. It's an impracticable suggestion.
And the current Chief of Navy was a person who was involved in operations of that nature in the past, and he's made his view crystal clear that he sees that as being impracticable, not able to be achieved, circumstances have changed, and all you will do by following that approach is to put Navy personnel and people on the high seas at risk and in danger.
TONY JONES: As you've said in your speech, in the past year the Australian and Indonesian navies conducted coordinated patrols of the maritime borders, and you've agreed today apparently with the Defence Minister to expand that program. Could it be expanded to include a coordinated effort by both navies to stop asylum seeker vessels coming to Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we've been doing those coordinated patrols for some time. It's not new. There was no discussion today about enhancing or increasing the scope of those patrols. It's essentially joint patrols for maritime borders. We've been doing it for some time. We have in the course of the day spoken at some length about the potential for Australia and Indonesia to enhance its practical cooperation in a whole range of areas.
Currently, maritime security is one area where we work very closely together, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping - they're some key areas. But when we have our next formal annual Defence ministers' meeting in Perth later this year, what we want to do is to outline and map out some further areas of practical defence-to-defence and military-to-military cooperation.
But I got a comparable question at the press conference today. Too much has been made of that suggestion. On that front it's essentially business as usual, but as a general proposition, we do want to continue to substantially enhance the practical cooperation in the Defence area that we have with Indonesia.
TONY JONES: And could the naval cooperation be enhanced in the way that I've just suggested, so that both navies cooperate to prevent asylum seeker boats coming to Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's not a proposal which is on the table, Tony, either by us or by Indonesia.
TONY JONES: Okay. You said today that the Lombok Treaty commits Australia and Indonesia to support each other's unity and territorial integrity. Are the growing numbers of asylum boats coming to Australia, as the Coalition suggests, a threat to our border security and therefore to our territorial integrity?
STEPHEN SMITH: No. That's a nonsense, Tony, and it misuses, misunderstands or misapplies what the Lombok Treaty was about in that respect. The Lombok Treaty, which entered into force after then Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda and I bought it into effect in Perth in 2008-2009 - its reference to territorial integrity and sovereignty is essentially Australia at treaty level saying that we respect Indonesia's territorial sovereignty and its territory, and we don't seek to disturb that. And that was, frankly, a particular reference to some of Indonesia's provinces, in particular Papua. So it's not in the treaty, in the Lombok Treaty context, used or sought to be used in that way at all.
TONY JONES: Okay. We know that John Howard virtually won an election fought on the issue of border security when he proclaimed that, "We'll decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come." Tony Abbott's now saying something very similar. Are the Indonesians aware that this is a potentially explosive election issue in Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, John Howard won an election by skillfully, and in my view, shamefully merging the questions of asylum seekers, Refugee Convention, boat people and terrorist and security risks. That's my analysis of his victory in that election. Look, I don't think - and I used the phrase earlier in our discussions, Indonesia and Australia, we understand this is a sensitive issue. We understand that it's a matter of interest in both countries. But that doesn't get in the way of us trying to deal with it effectively in a bilateral way, but also deal with it effectively in our region.
Australia has made the point under this government repeatedly that the only way in which we'll stop these movements, particularly the secondary movements, is by a regional solution and by a regional approach. That's what the Bali Process is all about. And the initiatives which came out of the Bali process in the last couple of days reflect that - starting to utilise the law enforcement program in Jakarta for asylum seeker and human trafficking purposes. So the only way in which we'll get further progress on these issues is by regional approach and that's why, for example, the so-called "Malaysia Solution", which we continue to believe would be effective, was a solution that we put in the context of the Bali Process meeting when former Immigration Minister Bowen made that suggestion a year or so ago.
TONY JONES: Okay. Now you've used your speech tonight to talk to the Indonesians about Australia's future Defence posture, and its strategy, and the increasing closeness to the United States as they pivot into this region. Have they at any time expressed any doubts or concerns about the future basing of US troops in Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, certainly not to me, and on the contrary, if you look at the comments that President Yudhoyono made at the time, he welcomed the US Marines in Darwin as the potential for enabling Australia to invite ASEAN and ASEAN-related forum countries, ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus or East Asia Summit countries, welcomed the opportunity that that provided to enable exercises, particularly in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief context to occur, so that people would become comfortable with each other, interoperability would grow and the like.
And that's why, for example, we have been suggesting and Indonesia has been responding positively that Australia invites members of the East Asia Summit or the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus forum, in particular and including Indonesia, to do humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises. And it was President Yudhoyono who made the comment shortly after the announcement of the Marine deployment to Darwin on a six-month rotational basis that he could envisage at some stage into the future Australia, United States, Indonesia and China doing practical exercises to that effect. So, we are very strongly of the view that the United States presence in the Asia Pacific has been a force for peace, stability and prosperity since the end of World War II and we continue to be of the view that the United States engagement in the Asia Pacific is an unambiguously good thing. And I've made the point previously that if-
TONY JONES: Sorry, I'm just going to interrupt you there because we may run out of time, and there is this issue of the US troops in Darwin. From the American perspective, it's reported - it was reported yesterday that US Defence officials are concerned about slippage in the enthusiasm of Australia to have those large numbers of Marines, up to 2500 of them in Darwin on a rotational basis. Is there any slippage?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely not, and I don't know where that report came from. We've been working very closely with my counterparts, whether it's former Defence Secretary Panetta or current Secretary Hagel to continue to pursue these matters. So I don't know where that report came from, but there's no ongoing lack of commitment on our part. Indeed, we're not too far away from releasing the social and economic study which we are bringing to a conclusion about the impacts of 1100 US Marines in Darwin. We've started with 200 to 250; the next step will be 1100. But that is just one of the areas where we have enhanced our engagement with the US and they are all sensible things to do from Australia's perspective, but also from our region's perspective.
TONY JONES: OK. Let's move on to Korea. Has Australians or have Australia's military leaders war-gamed how Australian forces could possibly be utilised if this does turn into a serious land conflict?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you're getting very, very much ahead of yourself there, Tony. Firstly, we have made the point publicly and consistently to North Korea that it should desist from its provocative statements and provocative action so far as South Korea is concerned. And I've made the point that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Republic of Korea and Japan when it comes to North Korea's conduct so far as its nuclear program is concerned. We have a small number of Defence personnel on the Korean Peninsula at the moment, as part of the post-Korean War United Nations contingent. Clearly, in the normal course of events, we would do contingency planning for how we would deal with any Australian citizens who are caught up in any concern on the Korean Peninsula.
But you're really getting way ahead of yourself. We are very pleased that both China and Russia have urged North Korea to show restraint and we very much respect the fact that the Republic of Korea, South Korea has for a long period of time shown great restraint and turned the other cheek in the face of enormous provocation from North Korea. But that issue was an issue that was front and centre in our discussions not just with the Foreign and Defence Minister today, but also as part of our conversation with President Yudhoyono.
TONY JONES: Yes. So do any of those people, including the Indonesian President, think this could possibly be more than sabre-rattling?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have said, Australia has said - and I'm not proposing to put words into Indonesia's mouth - but if you look at the causes for concern so far as the international community is concerned, the dangers for miscalculation or misjudgement, we have North Korea's nuclear program and Iran's nuclear program. So, in my own mind they are the two matters at the top of the list in terms of causes for concern, and in both those instances, Australia is at the forefront of the international community's work both through the United Nations Security Council and generally to seek to have North Korea and Iran desist from their nuclear programs.
TONY JONES: Yeah, just sticking with North Korea for one minute. The alliance with the United States would automatically draw Australian forces into the conflict if there was one - isn't that the case?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we never get into hypotheticals, Tony. We have had, despite a range of provocative instances, some exchanges of fire and some tragic deaths over the years, since the 1950s there has been stability in a sense in the Korean Peninsula. We should take these things step-by-step. The most important step to take now is to continue to urge the DPRK, North Korea to desist from its provocative actions and to desist from its nuclear program-
TONY JONES: Okay-
STEPHEN SMITH: And that's consistent with the United Nations Security Council resolutions.
TONY JONES: Thank you. A final question. We're nearly out of time, but how high on the agenda will that issue be in the talks between the Chinese and the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister over the coming weekend?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Prime Minister's about to take off to China. Foreign Minister Carr leaves from here in the next day or two for China. There is no doubt that Australia will say privately to China what we say publicly, which is North Korea needs to desist from its conduct. We welcome the fact that China has publicly and privately urged restraint on North Korea. And the last occasion I was in Beijing and met with the then-Chinese Defence Minister, he was at pains to tell me how much effort China made to seek to urge restraint on North Korea.
So, there's no doubt that this is a key issue of concern to the international community and we welcome the fact that China and Russia have both urged restraint upon North Korea. If there are a couple of countries who can influence North Korea, then the first and obvious one is China, so we welcome the urgings that it has made to date and we will encourage it to do more.
TONY JONES: Stephen Smith, we'll have to leave you there. Thank you very much for joining us from Jakarta.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Tony. Thanks very much.