Australian Minister for Defence on Afghanistan; Australia and China military; ADFA and ADF reviews

(Min­is­ter for Defence Stephen Smith on Late­line 28 April 2011) 

ALI MOORE: Stephen Smith, wel­come to Late­line.
ALI MOORE: You’ve just returned from a two-day vis­it to Afghanistan and you say that clear progress is being made on the secu­ri­ty front, and yet while you were there, some 488 pris­on­ers, many of them Tal­iban, escaped from a jail in Kan­da­har, and just last night eight Amer­i­can sol­diers were shot dead by an Afghan Air Force pilot at a NATO train­ing cen­tre. You’d have to have your doubts, would­n’t you?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s clear that we’ve made con­sid­er­able progress in Uruz­gan Province in terms of secu­ri­ty advances. It’s also clear that’s the case through­out the rest of the coun­try, but it’s also clear that there is a long way to go and there will be set­backs and there will be adverse inci­dents like the ones you’ve described. We also know that this will be a tough sum­mer fight­ing sea­son. The Tal­iban will strike back and try to recov­er ground, but they will also, we know, try to use high-pro­file inci­dents, again like the ones you’ve described, the prison escape, but also the attack upon the Min­istry of Defence in Kab­ul, also the assas­si­na­tion of the Kan­da­har Police Com­mis­sion­er, high pro­file inci­dents to essen­tial­ly use as pro­pa­gan­da events to under­mine con­fi­dence. So there’s a long way to go, but I believe we’ve got the strat­e­gy, both the mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal strat­e­gy, in place to make progress and the resources to match it. 

ALI MOORE: Do you believe that the allied forces are still on track for a 2014 tran­si­tion to an Afghan led secu­ri­ty force? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Cer­tain­ly in Uruz­gan we are. We’ve made very good progress with the 4th Brigade of the Afghan Nation­al Army. We will also, in the mid­dle of this year, take over the train­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty of the 6th Kan­dak and the 4th Brigade, tak­ing that from the Unit­ed States. We’ve been able to do that large­ly because of mak­ing up fur­ther ground, but also trans­fer­ring respon­si­bil­i­ty to bases, patrol bases, to the Afghan Nation­al Army itself and also to the Afghan Nation­al Police. We’re con­fi­dent that we’re on track for a tran­si­tion over the next cou­ple of years, 2013–14, and all of the con­ver­sa­tions I had with Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force com­man­ders leads us to the same con­clu­sion so far as the rest of the coun­try is con­cerned. It won’t be an even process. It will be dis­trict by dis­trict, province by province. We very much wel­come the fact that Pres­i­dent Karzai in March announced the tran­si­tion of the first tranche sev­en provinces or dis­tricts. That’s a good thing. We’re on track in Uruz­gan, also a good thing. There’s still a lot more work to be done, not just on the train­ing front, but also on the capac­i­ty build­ing and devel­op­ment assis­tance and ser­vices to local com­mu­ni­ties. That’s a very impor­tant part of the polit­i­cal strat­e­gy now. 

ALI MOORE: I take your point that it might not be an even tran­si­tion, but if I can put to you some analy­sis by John Bolton, for­mer US ambas­sador to the Unit­ed Nations. He says in Feb­ru­ary the US with­drew units from the long-con­test­ed Pech Val­ley. They tran­si­tioned to an Afghan Gov­ern­ment force there and two months lat­er al Qae­da units were back, estab­lish­ing train­ing and oper­at­ing bases. That’s not promis­ing, is it? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, again, we know that as a strat­e­gy, the Tal­iban, the insur­gency, will try to under­mine con­fi­dence in areas where there has been a tran­si­tion. We also know that there’s no point, as Prime Min­is­ter Gillard has said, tran­si­tion­ing out ear­ly just to tran­si­tion back in again. But we also know that it will be uneven and there will be set­backs. So we have to accept the fact that in some areas where a tran­si­tion occurs, the Afghan Nation­al Army, the Afghan Nation­al Police, will be under some con­sid­er­able pres­sure. That will be done delib­er­ate­ly. That will be done delib­er­ate­ly by the Taliban. 

ALI MOORE: When the US starts to with­draw troops in just two months, pres­i­dent Oba­ma is yet to say how many, will you be urg­ing them to remove as few as pos­si­ble, as few as is polit­i­cal­ly palatable? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Unit­ed States admin­is­tra­tion is still work­ing through the detail of the first part of its draw­down. But I’ve nev­er seen an incon­sis­ten­cy between tran­si­tion by the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty timetable of 2014 with a draw­down, and I think on that front it’s best to wait to see the details of what the Unit­ed States pro­pos­es. But, as we know from our own expe­ri­ence in Uruz­gan, as cir­cum­stances change, you’re able to allo­cate resources dif­fer­ent­ly. So as we have tak­en more ground, stopped the Tal­iban momen­tum in Uruz­gan and been able to hand over patrol base respon­si­bil­i­ty to either the Afghan Nation­al Army or to the police, that has freed us up to do oth­er things, par­tic­u­lar­ly on the train­ing front. The same will be true of Unit­ed States forces. 

ALI MOORE: Won’t it depend on how many they withdraw? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it will be both quan­ti­ty and qual­i­ty. We know, for exam­ple, that Unit­ed States still has resources in Afghanistan, which has essen­tial­ly been back of office, so to speak, or back up to the surge which came just some 12 months ago. But I think on this mat­ter it is best to wait until Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and the admin­is­tra­tion announce the detail of the start of their draw­down in the mid­dle of this year. 

ALI MOORE: Of course you’ve made it very clear you don’t see any draw­down of Aus­tralian troops over the next; the quote is 12 months to two years. That’s quite a dif­fer­ent time frame if you’re on the ground or there are fam­i­lies at home. Do you think this time next year, which would make it 12 months; we’ll start to see some of those Aus­tralian troops brought home? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, no, I’m not propos­ing to speak in those terms. What I’ve made clear is that we have our, on aver­age, 1550 com­ple­ment. That’s been the case since April of 2009, when this Gov­ern­ment increased it from an on aver­age 1100. I am con­fi­dent that over the next cou­ple of years, some­time between now and the end of 2014, we will effect a tran­si­tion into Afghan-led respon­si­bil­i­ty, both the police and the army, in Uruz­gan. But I’m nei­ther antic­i­pat­ing nor pre­dict­ing any draw­down of our con­tri­bu­tion over that peri­od of time. What we do know is that we have made it clear that once the tran­si­tion occurs, we expect that we’ll be there in some man­ner or form. Now, it may be Spe­cial Forces, it may be over­watch, it will cer­tain­ly be capac­i­ty build­ing, insti­tu­tion­al build­ing, per­haps niche train­ing. But we’ve got a long way to go before we work through that. But our pres­ence will be there in its cur­rent for­ma­tion until we’ve done the train­ing and men­tor­ing and tran­si­tion job and there­after we expect to be there in some form, but we need to work that through, not just with our inter­na­tion­al secu­ri­ty assis­tance force coali­tion, but also in our own way. 

ALI MOORE: Min­is­ter, if we can change sub­jects for a moment. The Prime Min­is­ter has now left Bei­jing, about you in her final talks with Chi­nese lead­ers; she spoke of want­i­ng more defence coop­er­a­tion with Chi­na. What does the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment have in mind? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have had for a peri­od of years a strate­gic defence dia­logue on an annu­al basis with the Chief of our Defence Force and Sec­re­tary of our Depart­ment togeth­er with the Chief of the Gen­er­al Staff of the PLA. That will con­tin­ue and that’s a good thing. We also have high-lev­el dia­logue on a reg­u­lar basis. I, for exam­ple, met my Chi­nese Defence Min­is­ter coun­ter­part in Hanoi. He and I have agreed that I will vis­it Chi­na in the sec­ond half of this year for a defence min­is­ters’ dia­logue and last year we saw the vis­it to Aus­tralia for the first time of the vice chair­man of the Chi­nese mil­i­tary com­mis­sion, Gen­er­al Guo. Also, in Sep­tem­ber of this year, we’ve had essen­tial­ly naval exer­cis­es with Chi­nese sailors on an Aus­tralian ves­sel and live fir­ing exercise. 

ALI MOORE: Giv­en all that, what more could be done? 

STEPHEN SMITH: More of that can be done on a reg­u­lar basis. We’d like to see, for exam­ple, more reg­u­lar naval exer­cis­es. The increas­ing reg­u­lar­i­ty of the high-lev­el talks, essen­tial­ly in our per­spec­tive we’d like to have annu­al min­is­te­r­i­al dia­logues in addi­tion to the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of the Gen­er­al Staff of the PLA talks. 

ALI MOORE: Is Bei­jing resist­ing that? 

STEPHEN SMITH: No, no, this is a devel­op­ing defence and mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion rela­tion­ship. We have a pos­i­tive and con­struc­tive rela­tion­ship with Chi­na. It start­ed eco­nom­i­cal­ly. It’s now broad­er than that, and it’s a very sen­si­ble thing for us to devel­op these rela­tion­ships and also to effect fur­ther prac­ti­cal exer­cis­es. It min­imis­es the prospect of mis­ad­ven­ture or mis­cal­cu­la­tion and it’s a very sen­si­ble thing for us to seek to enhance our defence coop­er­a­tion arrange­ments with China. 

ALI MOORE: Julia Gillard has made it clear that the Chi­na ver­sus US propo­si­tion is not, in her view for Aus­tralia, a case of either/or, but when Chi­na does become the dom­i­nant mil­i­tary pow­er, as Australia’s own Defence White Paper says that it will be by a con­sid­er­able mar­gin, and the US wants to main­tain its strate­gic dom­i­nance that it cur­rent­ly has in the region, what then? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly accept that char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion or cat­e­gori­sa­tion, but let me respond in this way; there is no doubt that the most impor­tant bilat­er­al rela­tion­ship between coun­tries in the course of this cen­tu­ry will be the bilat­er­al rela­tion­ship between the Unit­ed States and Chi­na. Just because we see Chi­na rise, does not mean that the Unit­ed States is going away, nor does it mean that we don’t have oth­er or anoth­er ris­ing pow­er, for exam­ple, India, which is also a coun­try of a bil­lion peo­ple. So it’s not just the rise of Chi­na, it’s the ongo­ing influ­ence of the Unit­ed States and also the rise of India. So we want Chi­na to emerge, as the Chi­nese would say, into a har­mo­nious envi­ron­ment or, as Bob Zel­nick said when he was US Deputy Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of State, as a respon­si­ble stake­hold­er. We are pos­i­tive and opti­mistic that this can occur, but we also know that Chi­na has dif­fer­ent val­ues from us in a range of things and we make these points to them pub­licly and pri­vate­ly. But we want Chi­na to emerge as a respon­si­ble inter­na­tion­al cit­i­zen which accepts inter­na­tion­al norms and con­ducts itself accord­ing­ly. Hav­ing an ongo­ing alliance rela­tion­ship with the Unit­ed States which, in my view, has nev­er been bet­ter or stronger is not incon­sis­tent with us con­tin­u­ing to have a pos­i­tive and con­struc­tive eco­nom­ic and gen­er­al rela­tion­ship with China. 

ALI MOORE: But I sup­pose as China’s mil­i­tary might grow, does­n’t walk­ing that line between the two super pow­ers become increas­ing­ly difficult? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as the Prime Min­is­ter said, it’s not one or the oth­er, or to use a phrase I’ve used in the past, it’s not a zero sum game. To advance our bilat­er­al inter­ests and rela­tion­ship with Chi­na does­n’t mean a diminu­tion of our alliance rela­tion­ship with the Unit­ed States or vice ver­sa. What we want in terms of Chi­na as a mil­i­tary pow­er is, we per­fect­ly accept and under­stand and acknowl­edge that as a country’s eco­nom­ic prowess ris­es, it’s per­fect­ly enti­tled to increase its defence and mil­i­tary assets and capa­bil­i­ty accord­ing­ly. We sim­ply want Chi­na to be trans­par­ent about its strate­gic inten­tions and I’ve made this point both pri­vate­ly to my Chi­nese coun­ter­parts and pub­licly, as have oth­er Aus­tralian ministers. 

ALI MOORE: I guess, though, we’ve already seen a more assertive Chi­na, cer­tain­ly towards its neigh­bours, we’ve seen more force­ful claims for sov­er­eign­ty in the South Chi­na Sea, there are a few coun­tries who are rel­a­tive­ly ner­vous. What if Chi­na were to decide it want­ed to take Tai­wan, that would be the ulti­mate conun­drum for Aus­tralia, would­n’t it? I sup­pose my ques­tion is it always going to be so easy to remain sit­ting com­fort­ably between Chi­na and America? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’m not propos­ing to deal with hypothe­ses, par­tic­u­lar­ly as it might relate to Tai­wan, that’s the first point. Sec­ond­ly, it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly a mat­ter of, to use your expres­sion, sit­ting com­fort­ably between. It is to have an alliance rela­tion­ship with the Unit­ed States, which remains the bedrock of our secu­ri­ty strate­gic and defence arrange­ments and rela­tion­ships and, at the same time, to have a con­struc­tive and pos­i­tive rela­tion­ship and dia­logue with Chi­na, and we say to both Unit­ed States and to Chi­na, pub­licly and pri­vate­ly, that a con­struc­tive and pos­i­tive bilat­er­al rela­tion­ship between the Unit­ed States and Chi­na is absolute­ly essen­tial. At the same time we regard the Unit­ed States’ ongo­ing activ­i­ty, ongo­ing pres­ence in the Asia-Pacif­ic region as being absolute­ly cru­cial to secu­ri­ty and sta­bil­i­ty in the region. So far as Chi­na is con­cerned and China’s inter­ests in the South and East Chi­na Seas, we have made it very clear, and I’ve made it clear to my Chi­nese coun­ter­part at the ASEAN Defence Min­is­ters Plus meet­ing in Hanoi last year, that we expect Chi­na to abide by and con­duct itself in accor­dance with inter­na­tion­al law of the sea and inter­na­tion­al mar­itime norms. We don’t take sides or inter­vene in what are com­pet­ing ter­ri­to­r­i­al claims, either of land or of the sea, but we do expect these mat­ters to be resolved ami­ca­bly between the coun­tries con­cerned, whether it’s Chi­na or oth­er coun­tries, because Chi­na is not the only coun­try that has mar­itime issues or dis­putes. We expect them to be resolved amicably. 

ALI MOORE: We have about a minute left; A cou­ple of quick ques­tions. Have the myr­i­ad reviews into the Aus­tralian Defence Force Acad­e­my begun? 

STEPHEN SMITH: We have affect­ed those reviews. The review by the Sex Dis­crim­i­na­tion Com­mis­sion­er is under way. We expect to announce short­ly the team to assist her. The Inspec­tor Gen­er­al has start­ed his work. The review or inquiry into the con­duct of the so called Skype inci­dent at ADFA is also in hand, and we are work­ing through the var­i­ous oth­er cul­tur­al ini­tia­tives that I have referred to and the Chief of the Defence Force and the Sec­re­tary of the Depart­ment and I are doing that as one. 

ALI MOORE: I was going to say, final­ly, is the head of the Defence Force Acad­e­my, Com­modore Bruce Kafer, still on forced leave? 

STEPHEN SMITH: He’s on leave, as direct­ed by the Vice Chief of the Defence Force. He will remain on leave until such time as these mat­ters are resolved. 

ALI MOORE: Min­is­ter, many thanks for being gen­er­ous with your time tonight. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much. 

Press release
Min­is­te­r­i­al Sup­port and Pub­lic Affairs,
Depart­ment of Defence,
Can­ber­ra, Australia 

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