STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Can I officially welcome to Perth and to Western Australia and Australia Admiral Bob Willard, Commander of the US Pacific Command.
It’s Admiral Willard’s first visit to Australia as Commander of Pacific Command but it’s not his first visit to Australia. We welcome him back and we’re very pleased to receive his visit on this occasion.
He’s been to Perth before in the 1980s and has remarked to me about the substantial changes that have occurred to Perth since the early 1980s.
In the course of his visit to Western Australia today we started the day at Campbell Barracks in Swanbourne with the SAS Regiment, and we’ve just come from Fleet Base West or HMAS Stirling, as it’s known to Western Australians.
In addition to speaking with the Regiment at Campbell Barracks and having a tour of the HMAS Perth Anzac Frigate at HMAS Stirling, we’ve had the chance for a bilateral conversation about some of the issues that Australia and the United States share.
Firstly, can I say the Alliance between Australia and the United States remains, of course, the bedrock of our strategic security and defence arrangements. And in that context we welcome Admiral Willard here so soon after the recent AUSMIN Meeting in Melbourne.
We discussed a range of issues. Firstly, the United States Global Force Posture Review, which Secretary Gates and I discussed in Melbourne. The United States is at the beginning of that exercise but, as part of the AUSMIN decisions, Secretary Gates and I agreed that Australia and the United States would have a joint working group to look at the implications for the United States and Australia so far as the Force Posture Review is concerned. And next week in Canberra, that working group will meet for the first time. So we’ve had the chance to discuss those issues.
Secondly, I was very pleased that Admiral Willard gave me his briefing on recent events in the Republic of Korean. Australia, of course, stands shoulder to shoulder with the Republic of Korea on these very difficult issues. And we again compliment the Republic of Korea for the restrained way in which it has responded to enormous provocation from North Korea.
As a consequence of our visit to Campbell Barracks we of course also spoke about Afghanistan and the joint and shared work we do in Uruzgan Province under the Combined Team Uruzgan in Afghanistan.
And, finally, as a result of the visit to HMAS Stirling, we had a conversation about the White Paper, Australia’s 2009 Defence White Paper, including and in particular our proposal for 12 new submarines, our future submarine program, which, of course, is a distinct possibility that we’ll see a presence in HMAS Stirling itself.
So Admiral, we’re very pleased to see you here. I’ll cross to the Admiral for some opening remarks. I’m then very happy to respond to your questions about the Admiral’s visit. And then if you have questions relating to other matters I’m happy to take those as well.
Can I just draw your attention, the Admiral has got a plane to catch and we’re looking at sort of getting away from here not too long after 1.15pm
BOB WILLARD: Thank you Minister. Thank you very much for those kind comments and the welcome to Western Australia. As the Minister mentioned, the last time I was here, I think, was 1989 and I was still a young pilot on an aircraft carrier, and paid a visit to Perth. It’s wonderful to be back. Your city looks wonderful and flying over the state Western Australia itself looks terrific.
I’d like to offer my thanks to CDF Angus Houston and to Minister Smith for having hosted me through the several days that I’ve been back to Australia. We’ve had terrific discussions, bilateral discussions, and I’ve had the opportunity to visit in Canberra, Darwin and now Perth.
So this was a rare experience for both my wife and I, and wonderfully hosted by our Australian hosts. Thank you so much.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much.
QUESTION: Minister, you mentioned the White Paper. We’ve previously been led to believe that the Chinese were unconcerned about the White Paper and particularly Angus Houston had made some comments in May saying that they’d shown no concern. The latest WikiLeaks cables indicate that they in fact were concerned; there was negative reaction.
STEPHEN SMITH: Let me make a number of remarks in response to that. Firstly, I’m not proposing now or in the future to be drawn on any individual diplomatic cable or newspaper reporting on that. The Government has made its view clear about what it regards very strongly as the inappropriate release of such material. And I’ve made that point myself. So far as the White Paper is concerned, not in response to any reporting on any particular cable, but as a general proposition let me restate the longstanding and well-known position of the Australian Government. Firstly, in the run-up to the publication of the Defence White Paper in 2009, the Government took the opportunity of alerting a number of countries to the proposed publication and briefed accordingly. That’s on the public record. One of those countries was China, and I have read the transcript from the briefing that Chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston gave in May of 2009. I’ve read it very carefully and people should do that. And I’ve discussed it with the CDF today and he advises me there’s no reason why he would change any of the comments he made on that occasion, nor do I see any reason.
I have made it clear, as Minister for Defence and previously as Foreign Minister, that when it comes to Australia’s relationship with China, there are some very important fundamentals. Firstly, we have a positive constructive relationship with China, both generally and so far as Defence cooperation is concerned. That’s the first point.
Secondly, Australia has made it clear to China, both publicly and privately, that as China emerges as a rising power, as a super power, we expect that as a result of this economic expansion there will also be a military expansion. But we expect China to be transparent about the strategic intent behind its military expansion.
Thirdly, the White Paper does not single out China, as some commentators either in China or in Australia would have you believe. It is a strategic view of our region and beyond. So I’ve seen a range of comments today and they don’t in any way detract from the position made clear by the Government or the position that the Chief of the Defence Force indicated to journalists in a media briefing in May 2009.
QUESTION: So you believe that China was happy with that Defence Paper?
STEPHEN SMITH: As I’ve said on any number of occasions, both as Minister for Defence in this Parliament and previously, I myself have had conversations with Chinese counterparts, and those conversations have been frank. They’ve been frank about Australia’s view that the White Paper is not aimed at China or any individual nation. Those conversations have also been frank about the fact that, as China’s military expansion occurs, we expect China to be transparent about the strategic intent behind that military expansion.
We remain confident that China will emerge, as Bob Zoellick would say, as a responsible international stakeholder or, as the Chinese would say, into a harmonious environment.
QUESTION: Minister, what about the claims that there’s a widespread view that Afghanistan is a hopeless case inside Government. How widespread is that view?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, again, I’m not proposing to be drawn on any particular cable or alleged cable, or commentary arising from that. But let me outline to you the very clear and consistent position of the Australian Government. Firstly, from the moment we came to office in December 2007, we made it clear from the outset that we regarded our effort in Afghanistan as, firstly, not just being in the international community’s interests, but in Australia’s national interest. But we also made it clear we regarded that as being difficult and dangerous. There has been no understatement so far as the Government is concerned of the difficulties or the dangers or the challenges in Afghanistan. That’s the first point.
Secondly, we have recently seen a fully-fledged Parliamentary debate on Afghanistan. In the course of that debate I made it clear, both in the Parliament and publicly in my remarks, that one of the challenges we faced in Afghanistan was having been there for nine and a half years, having seen the distraction of Iraq, one of the failings of the international community was that we did not bring to the table a coherent military or political strategy about Afghanistan until very recently.
Very many of the comments that I’ve seen are dated at a time prior to the Riedel Review, prior to General McChrystal’s Review, prior to the Obama Review, and the agreement by the United States and the International Security Assistance Force and the international community reflected through the Kabul Conference that we saw in July of this year, reflected through the London Conference at the beginning of this year, and also most recently reflected by the Lisbon Conference. Finally we have a coherent military and political strategy with, as a result of the surge, following President Obama’s decisions and NATO’s decisions, with the resources to match that.
Yes, Afghanistan has been and continues to be difficult and dangerous. We do believe that in the last six months or so we have made progress. But as I have said previously, the test of that, the next really effective test of that will be when the fighting season resumes after the winter. And so in the first half of next year we will see whether those advances have been consolidated.
But as the Prime Minister has made clear, as I have made clear, as the Minister for Foreign Affairs has made clear, Afghanistan will continue to be difficult. Afghanistan will continue to be dangerous. We expect there will be further casualties, indeed the prospect of further fatalities in Afghanistan. But we are there because we believe it is in our national interest to help stare down international terrorism and to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism.
QUESTION: Would you refer to Germany and France’s contribution as organising folk dancing festivals in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Again, I’ve seen those reports. Let me again restate what the Australian Government has said about the international community’s contribution to Afghanistan. With the inclusion of Tonga at the Lisbon Summit, there are now 48 countries making a contribution in Afghanistan. So far as Australia is concerned, we are the largest non-NATO contributor. We are the tenth largest contributor. And in terms of special forces, we’re the third largest contributor.
Germany and France, significant NATO countries, make substantial contributions. Last time I looked Germany’s contribution was just over 4000 troops, France’s contribution was just under 4000 troops. Tragically Germany has suffered over 50 casualties, and the French just under 50 casualties.
Both those countries have made a substantial contribution, and continue to make a substantial contribution. And Australia, in the course of the Afghanistan effort, and in particular since we came to office have worked closely with both France and Germany on the strategic imperatives in Afghanistan and on the contribution that all three of us are making there. So rule of thumb, Germany and France are in not just the top 10 contributors but in the top five contributors and, as senior NATO countries, that is appropriate. And we welcome very much their ongoing contribution.
QUESTION: Admiral Willard, can I just ask what exactly you’re doing here in Perth? Would you like to see more US forces working out at Garden Island?
BOB WILLARD: Well, as the Minister mentioned earlier, I had the opportunity to meet with your SAS forces this morning. And to the point of Afghanistan, they’ve come away having completed courageous missions and had great success in Uruzgan and continue to do so.
So I had the opportunity to discuss Afghanistan and understand the perspectives of Australia while I was here. I also had the opportunity to visit Stirling, and to visit one of your ships that has been recently upgraded for air defence, and understand those upgrades.
As the Minister mentioned earlier, the Alliance between the United States and Australia is at least a bedrock Alliance; perhaps, you know, greater, perhaps the strongest Alliance that we have as a nation. And we are very proud of the contribution and the interoperability that exists between our two armed forces.
And it’s important, as Pacific Command Commander, that I take the opportunity to visit the various sites in Australia where there are force concentrations and to have discussions with the senior leadership there.
As the Minister also mentioned, there is a Global Force Posture Review ongoing. And, fortunately, our two Governments are going to have those high-level discussions beginning with the working group that arrives next week. I think that it’s important that as Commander of Pacific Command with an input to that study that I also take the time to put eyes on various locations in Australia where those discussions may cover.
STEPHEN SMITH: Could I just add to that. It’s a point I’ve mentioned in the past. Australia, of course, regards the ongoing presence and engagement of the United States in the Asia Pacific region as being absolutely essential to stability in the region. And as we made clear at AUSMIN, we encourage, indeed encourage greater engagement and participation, and we’ve welcomed very much that greater engagement that we’ve seen from the Obama administration, and we look forward to these conversations continuing.
QUESTION: Minister, can I just ask too, the perception from the US Embassy that under you as a Foreign Minister, the Department of Foreign Affairs was out of the loop, DFAT would often have to go to the Israeli Ambassador to see what the Prime Minister was up to. What is your reaction to that?
STEPHEN SMITH: I’m not proposing, as I’ve said, to be drawn on any commentary that we find in cables that are alleged to have been circulated.
But I make the point that a number of my Ministerial colleagues have made in the past, and I’ve made in the past: when it comes to diplomatic cables, it is very important that the confidentiality and security of diplomatic cables be protected. That’s very important for the business and the dealings between nation states. And that reason, together with the dangers that the release of such cables pose, either to national security interests or to the safety and wellbeing of particular individuals, whether they’re diplomats or others, is a very strong reason why we have condemned so roundly the publication of these materials.
But diplomatic cables, like newspaper reports, can either contain gossip or substantive analysis. And I’ll leave it to others to judge whether the matters you’ve referred to, either in newspapers or in diplomatic cables, are gossip or substantial analysis.
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