TOPICS: Update on the earthquake and tsunami crisis in Japan, ADF efforts in disaster relief in Japan, situation in Libya, bid for Bay Class vessel, acquisition of an additional C-17 Globemaster.
KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me here in the Canberra studio, the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith. Mr Smith, thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure.
KIERAN GILBERT: Australians who don’t have to be in Tokyo, as we heard from the Foreign Minister earlier, are being advised to consider leaving. Not because of levels of radiation or concerns over that, but due to infrastructure, essential services. Did the radiation issue play any role in the national security committee coming up with that conclusion?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there are two separate issues there. Firstly, the travel advice, which the Foreign Minister has referred to yesterday and today, makes it clear that there is significant disruption, terrible disruption to facilities and resources, continuing aftershocks and the like. And, on that basis, the travel advice was changed to indicate to people that they should contemplate leaving, and also, that family members of diplomats could voluntarily leave if they so chose to do.
Separate from that, of course, is the issue of radiation. We’ve been, obviously, working and following that issue very closely. Not just with our own advisers, ARPANSA, the Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Organisation[sic] and the other related nuclear organisations that we have, but also working closely with other countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
And, in that respect, the advice continues to be the need for localised exclusion zones, and for people to take care if they’re close to the actual facility. And we’re making that advice also available on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website as part of a travel advice, and that’s being updated on a six-hourly basis. But the…
KIERAN GILBERT: Did that feed into the overall decision though to advise Australians in Tokyo, for example, to-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well-
KIERAN GILBERT: Consider leaving?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well,no. We’re listing the two things, or treating the two things separately. We are continually monitoring any adverse implications for safety as a result of what’s occurring at the Fukushima power station and the reactors there.
The advice continues to be that we should very carefully follow the exclusion zones. There’s currently [break in transmission] zone which the Japanese authorities have advised either to remove oneself from the area or to take shelter. We’re following that, and that’s part of our travel advice. But we’re monitoring that assiduously. For example, overnight, the United States Ambassador in Tokyo has indicated to United States citizens that they should contemplate an 80 kilometre exclusion zone. And as the Foreign Minister has said this morning, our officials, as we speak, are giving that very careful consideration.
So, at this stage, all of the advice we have from our own officials, who are experts in the area, from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and from other countries’ advice is that so far as radiation is concerned, we’re dealing with a localised area where people need to take very serious precautions. That’s separate from people in Tokyo, to whom we’ve said, because of disruption, you might want to consider leaving.
The travel advice, of course, makes it clear that people should not travel to the adversely affected area where the reactors are situated.
KIERAN GILBERT: Can you talk us through the support that the Defence Force has been providing — the Australian Defence Force has been providing as part of the search and rescue efforts there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, we have a very close relationship generally with Japan. It’s one of our closest relationships, and we have a very close defence and military cooperation relationship with them. Indeed, after the United States, we probably have the closest relationship with Japan and it self-defence forces. We supplied a C-17, a very large aircraft, and 24 hours, effectively, after the earthquake and tsunami, we used a C-17 to deliver our own emergency workers and that’s occurred. We’ve agreed with the Japanese authorities that the C-17 will remain in Japan for the rest of this week, at least until the end of Sunday. And we’ve been assisting the Japanese authorities in their efforts.
Yesterday, for example, we were delivering fresh water. Today, the C-17 will transport Japanese emergency workers, which we’ve also done in the course of our time there. So, it’s a very good thing that we’re doing.
Other than the United States, we’re the only country who’s got a military asset in Japan and the only country, other than the United States, who’s got such a large, heavy airlift capability to assist. And we’ll continue to do that for the rest of the week.
KIERAN GILBERT: Can I ask you about a couple of other issues?
STEPHEN SMITH: Sure.
KIERAN GILBERT: Now, the international community seems to have missed the opportunity to enforce a no-fly zone, as the Qaddafi forces close in on that rebel-held city of Benghazi. Is that a fair assessment of the situation at the moment?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we’ve been saying for nearly a month that the Security Council should adopt a no-fly zone resolution with respect to Libya. The Security Council, as we speak, is currently seized of that issue. There’s a draft resolution before it and we…
KIERAN GILBERT: But it’s too late isn’t it?
STEPHEN SMITH: And we continue to urge-
KIERAN GILBERT: Well-
STEPHEN SMITH: We continue to urge-
KIERAN GILBERT: Qaddafi’s forces are closing in on this city.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we continue to urge the Security Council to adopt such a resolution. We’ve believed for some time that that would be a helpful contribution.
We were, frankly, disappointed that the G8 foreign ministers couldn’t reach unanimity over the issue. But when I was in Brussels last week, I was very pleased that NATO defence ministers essentially said that in the face of a Security Council resolution, together with regional support from the Arab League and the African Union that NATO would take up the implementation of such a no-fly zone.
What’s occurring in Libya is most distressful, and we continue to urge the international community and the Security Council to adopt a no-fly zone as part of the array of measures. We strongly support the arms embargo, we’ve applied our autonomous sanctions so far as financial and travel matters are concerned. But we believe the international community can do more.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, just finally, on the issue of acquisitions, I understand that the government is making a formal bid for a Bay Class vessel to fill the capability gap in the navy, and also, another acquisition for the air force.
STEPHEN SMITH: Yeah, well, two separate things. Firstly, today, London time, we will formally enter a bid for the purchase of a large, heavy amphibious lift vessel, a Bay Class from the United Kingdom. I’ve spoken about this publicly before. But we’ll put our formal bid in today to purchase the vessel.
And separately, this week, the government’s also formally decided that we should acquire another C-17 large aircraft, and we’ll do that as quickly as we can. And this has been — this has arisen in part because of the great utility we’ve got out of our current C-17 fleet in disaster relief, both in Christchurch, the earthquake recently, but now as literally as we speak, also in Japan, so far as the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunamis concerned there.
So we’re — we are very keen to pick up the Bay Class to cover that amphibious lift capability, and the C-17s have been a very useful asset for us, and getting another one will really help us in terms of our flexibility.
So, very pleased with both of those initiatives occurring this week in terms of acquisitions.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, I appreciate your time, thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.
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