TOPICS: PM Julia Gillard’s address to the US Congress and the importance of the Australian-US relationship, Australia’s relationship with China, upcoming NATO and ISAF meetings and the situation in Libya.
KIERAN GILBERT: And with reaction to the Prime Minister’s address to Congress, I’ve got the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, joining us from London. Minister, I know you’ve been in talks with your British counterpart, Liam Fox. We’ll get to those in a moment. But first, your thoughts on the Prime Minister’s speech. She focused a fair bit on China and suggesting the rise of China means that the United States needs to remain an anchor, a regional anchor of security. But on the other hand saying that the United States doesn’t need to be threatened by China and its economic rise. Aren’t the two messages a bit contradictory?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, we don’t believe so. Her speech reflects what the Australian Government has been articulating for some time, which is we continue to believe that China will emerge as a positive influence, as the Chinese would say, into a harmonious environment. But this is, as we describe it, the century of the Asia-Pacific, the rise of China, the rise of India, the ongoing importance of the United States. So, it’s absolutely essential that the United States and China have a very positive and constructive bilateral relationship at every level. From economic and trade to military and defence cooperation.
So, as China rises it expands its military prowess, that’s understood and acknowledged. Australia simply says that China needs to be transparent about that and to emerge as a great power, conducting itself in accordance with international norms and conducting itself in a manner which reflects a great power working cooperatively with other great powers like the United States and India.
KIERAN GILBERT: The United States is undertaking a force posture review in the Asia-Pacific. There’s a lot of talk that they’re going to seek an expanded presence in Australia. In that context, I want to ask you about John McCain — Senator John McCain’s comments yesterday. He is the senior member of the Senate armed forces committee in the United States. Now, he says that Australia and the United States need to work together to ensure freedom of the seas. He said that in the context of China. What do you make of those comments and can we read into that an expanded naval presence in Australia of the United States Navy?
STEPHEN SMITH: The United States is conducting what it describes as a global force posture review. I think we need to understand the importance of following that process. It’s a global review, so it’s not just the Asia-Pacific, but the United States force posture throughout the world. We are keenly interested in whatever might emerge in the Asia-Pacific. As a general proposition, we want the United States to not just continue its engagement and enhancement in the Asia-Pacific, but also to enhance it.
We have established with the United States a joint working party to look at whatever implications might arise for Australia in that context. So far as Senator McCain’s comments are concerned, I’ve seen those, and I’ve also seen the Prime Minister’s response to them.
On questions of maritime issues we know, for example, in the South and East China seas, there are some potential tensions. There are a range of maritime territorial claims some of which China is associated or involved with; others involve different countries. Australia has consistently said that these maritime territorial disputes need to be resolved in a peaceful way, in accordance with the Law of the Sea and international norms.
As a maritime country ourselves, we’ve always understood and reinforced the importance of free lanes of sea traffic for transport and communications and economic purposes. So, adherence to the Law of the Sea and international norms, so far as maritime use, is very important to Australia, but also important to our region. We remain confident that China will emerge, in that context, as a country which respects those conventions.
These points were made to China by Australia and others at the ASEAN-Plus Defence Ministers’ meeting in Hanoi last year, but also made generally through the East Asia Summit which, of course, we see, in the very near future, the United States and Russia joining, which is an unambiguously good thing so far as our region is concerned.
KIERAN GILBERT: On the issue of Libya and your discussions with your British counterpart Liam Fox does it look like there will be an international consensus on a no-fly zone and if there will be are you concerned about the warning from Qaddafi where he says that the Libyan people will take up arms against any western forces if they impose such a no-fly zone?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as the Prime Minister has said, as the Foreign Minister has said, as I have said, we need to take this step by step. Australia does believe that a no-fly zone over Libya would assist in the resolution of the tragedy that we see unfolding in Libya. UK Defence Secretary Fox and I both leave tomorrow morning for Brussels for the NATO and ISAF meetings.
The NATO Ministers will meet tomorrow. The NATO and ISAF Ministers will meet on Friday on Afghanistan but I think the emerging consensus in the international community is that if there is to be a no-fly zone in or over Libya, it needs to be backed up or supported by international law. The obvious starting point is the United Nations Security Council Resolution and the Security Council and its permanent members have made clear that that’s something that the Security Council will take step by step.
But in the meantime NATO, as the nearest or most relevant regional security organisation, is doing some pre-planning or a scoping study on a no-fly zone arrangement over Libya. It’s of course potentially a complicated military or combat enforcement exercise, so again NATO countries including the United Kingdom are taking that step by step.
But Australia believes that a no-fly zone would be of assistance. Having said that it’s not the only means by which Colonel Qaddafi is waging terror upon his people. He’s also doing that utilising land forces as well. So the best solution in Libya is for Colonel Qaddafi to move off the stage but we’re not holding our breath for that to occur.
KIERAN GILBERT: The NATO Secretary General has flagged that NATO doesn’t want to intervene but it is ready to respond at short notice to developments. Would Australia be involved in any military role there with NATO and I do see that you’ve suggested that C17 transport aircraft would be made available in terms of humanitarian support. Is Australia willing to provide the humanitarian support through those C17s but not go further into military support of NATO?
STEPHEN SMITH: On the issue of humanitarian assistance we’ve already contributed about six million Australian dollars to the International Red Cross and UN agencies to assist the humanitarian disasters.
I’ve made the point both publicly and privately here in the United Kingdom that if there is to be a no-fly zone over Libya and military enforcement action, then in the first instance we would look to Libya’s neighbours and its regions including Europe, to take part in that and obviously NATO and constituent countries fall squarely into that category and that’s why you’ve seen in recent days comments both by the United Kingdom and the United States about that potential.
We don’t expect that we would receive a call from the international community to assist in a military context. We’re obviously very far away from Libya itself and North Africa. I have said though that we do see potentially a role for Australia, again if it’s required by the international community, for further humanitarian assistance.
We’ll only utilise that if it’s required or needed and we’ve done some pre-planning, some scoping on the possible use of either a C130 or a C17 heavy air lift capability. At this stage it’s very much at its preliminary stage and we would only utilise that further humanitarian assistance and capability if the international community was short in any way or believed that that could be of assistance.
But we do see a possible role for humanitarian relief but we don’t see a direct role for military enforcement action. We believe that if the international community and the Security Council move in that direction then that would be a matter primarily for countries in the region, in particular NATO or its constituent countries.
KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister Stephen Smith in London, thanks very much for your time.
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