Australia — Defence Minister Stephen Smith interviewed by Jim Middleton

JIM MIDDLETON: Australia’s Navy is respon­si­ble for inter­cept­ing peo­ple smug­glers try­ing to get asy­lum seek­ers to Aus­tralia. The ques­tion is whether the Navy will now be able to cope if today’s deci­sion encour­ages more peo­ple to take the risky trip south. Stephen Smith is Australia’s Defence Min­is­ter. Defence Min­is­ter, wel­come to the pro­gram.

STEPHEN SMITH: Plea­sure Jim. 

JIM MIDDLETON: The High Court deci­sion on asy­lum seek­ers has secu­ri­ty impli­ca­tions. Aus­tralian Navy patrols are already at full stretch inter­cept­ing boats to Australia’s north. Can you guar­an­tee the Navy will be able to inter­cept the addi­tion­al asy­lum seek­ers this deci­sion will encourage? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don’t draw any of those impli­ca­tions. Of course the detail is a mat­ter for the Min­is­ter for Immi­gra­tion to con­sid­er and he’s made it clear he’ll bring the ram­i­fi­ca­tions to Cab­i­net. But the High Court has not dis­turbed our exci­sion of off­shore islands regime; has not dis­turbed our deten­tion arrangements. 

It said that where peo­ple are assessed off­shore they have lim­it­ed appeal rights where there’s been a breach of law or a sug­ges­tion of an unfair pro­ce­dure. So I don’t inter­pret that deci­sion as in any way dis­turb­ing the bor­der pro­tec­tion and con­trol arrange­ments that we have in place. They will con­tin­ue. They of course have in recent times, in the course of our Gov­ern­ment being in office, have been sub­stan­tial­ly enhanced. So there’ll be no — in our view — our assess­ment, no adverse impli­ca­tions for that. 

JIM MIDDLETON: We’ll move on Defence Min­is­ter. You’re attend­ing the NATO Sum­mit in Lis­bon, next week. You had talks with US Sec­re­tary of State, Sec­re­tary of Defense Robert Gates and the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admi­ral Mike Mullen ear­li­er this week. Will Aus­tralia agree to the Amer­i­cans’ sug­ges­tion to deploy Aus­tralian forces per­ma­nent­ly in Kan­da­har Province in Afghanistan?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, three things. Yes, the AUSMIN meet­ings we held in Mel­bourne ear­li­er this week, they were very suc­cess­ful, very pleased to see both Sec­re­tary of State Clin­ton and Sec­re­tary of Defense Gates in Aus­tralia. Very suc­cess­ful, com­pre­hen­sive discussions. 

Sec­ond­ly, yes, I am attend­ing Lis­bon with the Prime Min­is­ter where NATO and ISAF will look at the tran­si­tion to Afghan-led respon­si­bil­i­ty and the inter­na­tion­al community’s desire to see that effect­ed by 2014. In terms of the oper­a­tion of our spe­cial forces, whilst I need to be care­ful about what I say pub­licly about such oper­a­tions, we of course have got our spe­cial forces based in Uruz­gan Province. 

We do allow the flex­i­bil­i­ty to see them oper­ate from time to time in Kan­da­har, par­tic­u­lar­ly North­ern Kan­da­har. The sug­ges­tion that I’ve seen in the pub­lic domain was not some­thing that we dis­cussed at Min­is­te­r­i­al lev­el in the course of AUSMIN and there’s not pro­pos­al before the Gov­ern­ment to effect that. Oth­er than that I would­n’t be get­ting into the detail of our bas­ing arrange­ments in terms of our spe­cial forces in Uruz­gan Province. 

JIM MIDDLETON: You were at the ASEAN-Plus Defence Min­is­ters Meet­ing in Hanoi not so many weeks ago. The Com­mu­niqué there empha­sised mar­itime secu­ri­ty, as indeed have Barack Oba­ma, Hillary Clin­ton, and Robert Gates through­out the peri­od since then. Will China’s will­ing­ness to accept a nego­ti­at­ed set­tle­ment on its ter­ri­to­r­i­al claims in the South Chi­na Sea be a test of Beijing’s will­ing­ness to use its grow­ing pow­er peace­ful­ly in the best inter­ests of all nations in the region?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well a num­ber of points there. First­ly the meet­ing of the ASEAN-Plus Defence Min­is­ters saw in the same room at the same time the Defence Min­is­ters who will make up the expand­ed or extend­ed East Asia Sum­mit. So the East Asia Sum­mit plus effec­tive­ly the Unit­ed States and Rus­sia. That’s a very good thing because it enables all of the key coun­tries in the Asia Pacif­ic to have that con­ver­sa­tion about defence, mil­i­tary and secu­ri­ty issues.

A very impor­tant part of those talks were the mar­itime issues and Aus­tralia togeth­er with Malaysia has agreed to co-chair an Expert Work­ing Group on mar­itime issues. It’s very impor­tant to Aus­tralia. We’re an island con­ti­nent, an island coun­try, and use of sea lanes — inter­na­tion­al sea lanes, con­sis­tent­ly with inter­na­tion­al law and prac­tice, is very impor­tant to us. 

The South Chi­na Sea and oth­er areas are the sub­ject of ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­putes and they involve coun­tries, a range of coun­tries, not just Chi­na. Australia’s posi­tion is quite clear. We think it’s impor­tant that those ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­putes be resolved amongst the par­ties con­cerned, be resolved ami­ca­bly and be resolved con­sis­tent­ly with inter­na­tion­al law and the Law of the Sea. And, as I said to the Defence Min­is­ters Meet­ing in Hanoi, we believe that the draft Code of Con­duct which ASEAN adopt­ed at the begin­ning of this Cen­tu­ry, 2002 from mem­o­ry, is a very good start­ing point. We are con­fi­dent as we’ve said con­tin­u­al­ly that Chi­na as it emerges — as it grows into a super pow­er — will emerge as a pos­i­tive force. 

JIM MIDDLETON: What do you make then of the point being made by emi­nent Aus­tralian strate­gist Paul Dibb that the recent con­fronta­tion with Japan shows that Chi­na is throw­ing its weight around too much, that it’s not long he says before Chi­na needs to be taught a les­son militarily?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we don’t talk in those terms. Yes there have been ter­ri­to­r­i­al issues or mar­itime issues, not just in the South Chi­na Sea but in the East Chi­na Sea and from time to time these issues, these dis­putes can cause ten­sion or con­cern in the region. That’s why Aus­tralia is very strong­ly of the view that these issues need to be resolved not just ami­ca­bly amongst the par­ties con­cerned — and often there are more than two par­ties to the issue or the dis­pute — but they also need to be resolved con­sis­tent­ly with inter­na­tion­al law.

And from time to time it will be appro­pri­ate for these issues to be seized by a region­al forum such as the East Asia Sum­mit or the ASEAN Defence Min­is­ters Plus. We see that as play­ing poten­tial­ly a valu­able role and why we were pleased to co-chair the Mar­itime Expert Work­ing Group. But in all of these issues, as Chi­na emerges, we want Chi­na to not just have a pos­i­tive and pro­duc­tive rela­tion­ship with Aus­tralia as it does, we want Chi­na to have a pos­i­tive and pro­duc­tive rela­tion­ship with all the coun­tries in the region. And in the East Asia Sum­mit meet­ing at For­eign Min­is­ters lev­el ear­li­er this year in July-August, a range of ASEAN coun­tries made the point very strong­ly that they want­ed these issues to be resolved in the man­ner which I have outlined.

JIM MIDDLETON: Defence Min­is­ter, thank you very much. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank Jim, thanks very much. 

Press release
Min­is­te­r­i­al Sup­port and Pub­lic Affairs,
Depart­ment of Defence,
Can­ber­ra, Australia 

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