DAVID SPEERS: Joining us now to look at the developments on the Korean Peninsula is the Defence Minster Stephen Smith.
Minister, thanks for joining us.
These new threats from North Korea today about more attacks if the alleged provocation continues from the South, what do you make of that?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think the good thing is that in the last 24 hours, frankly all we’ve seen has been rhetoric. I regard that as a good sign and the provocation, frankly, is the reverse. South Korea, the Republic of Korea, has conducted itself in a very restrained and exemplary way in the face of enormous provocation this year and previously.
DAVID SPEERS: Which isn’t easy for it, you would think. A very nervous population there.
STEPHEN SMITH: And this coming off the back of the torpedoing of the Cheonan, their corvette, the loss of 52 lives and on this occasion really irresponsible, unprovoked battery attack, artillery attack with the loss of lives and injuries to civilians.
So it’s a terrible development of events that we’ve seen…
DAVID SPEERS: Do you know what’s provoked it yet? Are you any closer to knowing what sparked this?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, North Korea, as the Foreign Minister has said, is one of, if not the most impervious regimes in the world. So it’s very difficult getting into their mindset.
What we do know is we’ve had the terrible incident in the last 24/48 hours, the Cheonan, the unveiling of further developments, bad developments so far as their nuclear program is concerned and in the last couple of years further attempts at missile and delivery system tests.
DAVID SPEERS: But after the events this week, has Australia changed its defence posture at all, or are we likely to?
STEPHEN SMITH: No and no. We are firstly, in terms of the bilateral relation, we have a very strong relationship with South Korea, with the Republic of Korea. Our collaboration on the defence and security and strategic front has enhanced in the last couple of years. In the next couple of days I’ll speak to their Defence Minister, Defence Minister Kim. I saw him recently in Hanoi for the ASEAN+ Defence Minister’s Meeting that we’re both parties.
But we have a very strong relationship with them which goes back to the Korean War in the 1950s. But we provided technical and scientific assistance for them when they were investigating the Cheonan. They, of course, look to their ally in the first instance, the United States, for support but we are giving them every support in terms of our support for action in the United Nations Security Council on the nuclear issues, our condemnation of North Korea’s conduct on the Cheonan and our condemnation of their conduct recently.
DAVID SPEERS: If things did escalate though, in this very uncertain situation on the Korean Peninsula, could this be a situation where Australia becomes militarily involved?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, we should always take these things step by step. That’s the first point. And in the current environment, the current context, I see that as being most unlikely. So we’re a very long way from that. Indeed, I think if you look at South Korea’s restrained response, the United States indicated it wants to take time to contemplate how it wants to respond and support the Republic of Korea. This is seen as a calm and restrained response, which is a good thing.
The first thing we want to do is to de-escalate to avoid miscalculation or further incidents, get the thing back onto an even keel and then work through, whether it’s through the United Nations, whether it’s using, for example, the Six Party Talks to effectively hold North Korea to account.
DAVID SPEERS: Has China done enough this week in response?
STEPHEN SMITH: Generally we have said to China on North Korea generally and nuclear issues, China does need to use its influence. And in the past we’ve said we’d like to see China use its influence more.
One good sign that has emerged this week is that on the Cheonan issue, for example, Russia was quite silent. We’ve already seen Foreign Minister Lavrov come out with a robust statement indicating that Russia, the Russian Federation, believes this is a most unwelcome development.
So we’re pleased that Russia has been more active on this issue…
DAVID SPEERS: What about China?
STEPHEN SMITH: We would like to see, and we’ve said this in the past, publicly and privately to China, we’d like to see China seek to use its influence on North Korea more. It does have a good relationship with North Korea, both historically and at present, so it is important for China to seek to use its influence on North Korea.
DAVID SPEERS: does China’s actions this year over some of those territorial disputes with Japan over the South China Sea, does that give you a bit of a worry that they may not be willing to step up to the plate internationally on this one?
STEPHEN SMITH: I don’t necessarily see the link. Everyone knows, including China, that North Korea is highly problematic and difficult to engage. China, of course, is a party to so called Six Party Talks, which is the regional and international institution that we’ve been using, the international community’s been using, to influence North Korea on nuclear issues.
But in terms of China and territorial disputes either in the South China Sea or the East China Sea, it’s important firstly to bear in mind that China is not the only country where there are territorial disputes in that part of the world, firstly. Secondly, we had a very good meeting at the ASEAN + Defence Minister’s Meeting about this very issue.
Australia’s been asked with Malaysia to co-chair an expert working group through that regional Defence Minister’s meeting, and that’s a good development. But we have said when, for example, General Guo, the Vice-Chair of the Chinese Military Commission was in Canberra earlier this year, we made the point to General Guo that in these issues we don’t take sides in terms of a territorial dispute, but we do want to see these issues resolved in accordance with international law, in accordance with the law of the sea and in a manner which doesn’t bring concern or tension to the region.
The openness of sea lanes and respect for the law of the sea are very important for us as an island continent. We are very economically dependent on sea lanes through that part of the world and generally.
DAVID SPEERS: Minister, can I ask you about another matter? Finally, Afghanistan – as this year draws to a close and I suppose the fighting season in Afghanistan tends to wind down as they head into the winter months as well, what progress can you point to this year in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Domestically first, I think the Parliamentary debate was a very good thing to do. I think that’s given a much wider and better appreciation of the challenge that we face and what we’re trying to do. So that was a good thing.
Secondly, the Lisbon Summit was very successful. It’s drawn together all of the strands of the military and political strategy and the commitment to transition and we now have a very good group of key players from NATO Secretary General Rasmussen to General Petraeus, a very good group of players, complementing personalities to drive the mission.
The regret, and I’ve said this in the Parliamentary debate, the regret is we’ve now got a very good military and political strategy and can move to implement it, but we are years late. The great regret of this is that the distraction of Iraq, not getting to a defined strategy much quicker sees us being in Afghanistan for a longer period of time.
DAVID SPEERS: Would you agree that there hasn’t been enough on the ground improvement this year?
STEPHEN SMITH: No. We think – and Secretary General Rasmussen said it, General Petraeus said it, our own CDF says it and the Prime Minister and I have said it in our general remarks – we think we’ve made progress in the last six months or so.
We are now in the traditional winding down as winter emerges. The expectation is that there will continue to be fighting, it will continue to be difficult, it will continue to be dangerous. The International Security Assistance Force will continue to do its job, including the use of special operations and special forces. But there will be something of a wind down.
So when spring re-emerges, that will be, we think, a key time. It will enable us to see whether we’ve consolidated gains and will also enable us to see whether the Taliban come back in strength or force. So next year will be a very important year, but we do think we have made a lot of progress into, to use the military terminology, in seizing ground and denying the Taliban of ground and space. And whilst we’re cautious about it, we are quietly, cautiously optimistic that we have made some ground on that front.
But more importantly, we think we’ve made some ground on the training front and the Afghan Security Forces being able to plan and take charge of the security for the Parliamentary elections this year was a good sign. They are also developing their own capacity.
We don’t want to be there forever, but we can’t leave tomorrow. So the only way to successfully meet our objectives is to put the Afghan Security Forces in the position of being able to lead those security operations. We still believe we’re on track to do that and meet the international community’s ambition of a transition by the end of 2014. DAVID SPEERS: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you very much.
DAVID SPEERS: You don’t want to give us a heads up on the anti-siphoning announcement we’re about to go to? You were there in Cabinet, of course, this morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: I’ll leave it to my namesake Stephen, I’ll leave it to Senator Conroy. I’ll just rejoice in the last Question Time for this year.
DAVID SPEERS: Indeed. We wish you well and a good Parliamentary break as well. Thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much.
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