Question: ASEAN is modernising its defence capabilities. What are Australia’s interests in this area?
Stephen Smith: ASEAN both as a regional organisation and its constituent countries is very important to Australia. Australia was ASEAN’s first dialogue partner some 30 years ago and ASEAN has now developed from a regional organisation of seven or eight countries to now a group of ten countries, but also with important ASEAN-related regional architecture.
The East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Defence Ministers plus meeting is a very important addition to the ASEAN-related architecture.
As we all know it is proposed that the East Asia Summit be expanded by two, with the inclusion of the United States and Russia. The ASEAN plus Defence Minister’s Meeting covers those same 18 countries so into the future we now have the prospect that those 18 countries, the ASEAN ten plus the eight will meet at Presidential and Prime Ministerial level, will meet at Foreign Minister level and will also meet at Defence Minister level. This is a very important contribution in Australia’s view to peace and security in our region. ASEAN is central to that, so we are very pleased that we are here for the inaugural meeting, very pleased that the initiative has been effected and we see this as being a very important and valuable contribution to practical peaceful security arrangements into the future.
Question: We have had a few regional security structures that you have just mentioned, so why do we need this new one [structure]?
Stephen Smith: Quite quickly after that we see the invitation of the ASEAN Defence Ministers to eight other Defence Ministers to meet initially at Ministerial level and subsequently at officials’ level. That is a very good thing because there are a range of practical measures that can arise from meeting at either ministerial or senior officials’ level. Firstly, the mere fact of the meeting builds confidence and trust, secondly capability building and capacity building can be effected but there is also, in our view, the potential for practical outcomes to arise out of this initiative. In that respect it is different for example from the ASEAN Regional Forum, which has 26 or 27 members but doesn’t have the same focus on practical outcomes or capacity or capability building.
Question: Maritime Security is one of the five priorities of this Defence Minister’s Meeting proposed by ASEAN. How does Australia contribute to this area?
Stephen Smith: We are of course an island continent, so we are a maritime nation and maritime arrangements, regulations and laws are very important to us. So, peaceful rights of passage … of international sea lanes are very important to Australia. As a consequence of that, Australia has put its name forward as a possible co-chair of the Maritime Security Expert Working Group. We have done that as one of the plus eight countries and Malaysia has done the same, putting its name forward as a co-chair from ASEAN. So, we think that is a very good opportunity for Australia, we think it reflects our expertise and our knowledge as a maritime nation. Of course it is entirely appropriate an ASEAN Plus gathering would regard maritime security as being important, just as disaster relief management, counter terrorism, and the like of the five areas that have been highlighted are also very important and areas where there is a need for regional cooperation.
Question: Vietnam is the first host of ADMM+. What do you think about Vietnam’s role in regional security?
Stephen Smith: We congratulate Vietnam very much on being the inaugural chair of the Defence Minister’s Plus meeting and we welcome very much and we are very grateful for Vietnam supporting Australia as on of the plus eight members. That fact, plus the fact that I have just signed with General Thanh a Memorandum of Understanding bilaterally between Australia and Vietnam in the defence cooperation area, very much reflects the fact that our view is that the relationship between Australia and Vietnam could not be better.
We have just formalised and enhanced cooperation in defence areas which are strongly supported by Vietnam in terms of being one of the eight plus countries, we are very strongly supportive of Vietnam in its role as ASEAN Chair and we look forward to working closely with Vietnam both in a bilateral sense but also as members of ASEAN Defence Minister’s plus.
All of this of course follows on very closely from the recent visit to Australia of the Secretary General [of the Communist Party of Vietnam] which was a very successful visit. We are very pleased with the strength and the warmth of the relationship that Australia and Vietnam have.
Question: Are there any specific areas of cooperation measures in the MOU?
Stephen Smith: In many respects it formalises some of the things that we have been doing to date but the mere fact that we are comfortable with each other now to form a memorandum of understanding in the defence cooperation area is a good thing. We have been very keen over the recent period to do what we can to assist in training and development of Vietnamese Army personnel, both through English language training, but also through scholarships, so helping to build capability and capacity of individual defence personnel and officers is a very good thing. We are internationally very well regarded for our training and I have a strong personal view that the awarding of scholarships to citizens of countries in our region is a very good thing for Australia to do. That capability building plus the fact that we have now various extensive people-to-people contacts between Australia and Vietnam I think underpins the strength and the warmth of the relationship. We see this very much as the state of the relationship is in a very good place but we think there is more that we can do and that is what Minister Thanh and I spoke about. It was very much looking forward to that bilaterally but also in the context of ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting plus.
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