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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