(Minister for Defence Stephen Smith on Lateline 28 April 2011)
ALI MOORE: Stephen Smith, welcome to Lateline.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
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.
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