Defence Minister Stephen Smith on Libya/relationship with China

TOPICS: The sit­u­a­tion in Libya, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of leas­ing a heavy lift ship from the UK, Land­ing Heli­copter Docks on order from BAE and Australia’s rela­tion­ship with Chi­na.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Now, the Defence Min­is­ter, Stephen Smith, is on his way to Brus­sels for a NATO sum­mit on Afghanistan.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: He’s cur­rent­ly in Lon­don where he’s just met with the British Defence Sec­re­tary Liam Fox and he joins us now from our Lon­don stu­dio. Mr Smith, good morn­ing.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morn­ing, Michael.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Now, did Liam Fox give you any insight into any pos­si­ble moves towards impos­ing a no-fly zone over Libya?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, he real­ly rein­forced what I’ve been say­ing pub­licly ear­li­er today which is this is an issue which the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty needs to take step by step. Clear­ly if a no-fly zone is to pro­ceed, the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty would want to see the start­ing point being a Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion, but the rel­e­vant Euro­pean coun­tries, for­mal­ly through NATO, are doing what they describe as scop­ing or pre-plan­ning in the event that such autho­ri­sa­tion would occur. The impres­sion I was left with by Defence Sec­re­tary Fox was that both the Unit­ed King­dom and NATO itself will take this very much in a method­i­cal, cau­tious, step by step man­ner. The NATO Defence Min­is­ters meet tomor­row — Thurs­day — fol­lowed on Fri­day by the NATO ISAF meet­ing which will focus on Afghanistan.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Real­is­ti­cal­ly though, it does look unlike­ly that the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil is going to approve a no-fly zone any time soon.

STEPHEN SMITH: I don’t think we can come to a con­clud­ed view on that. Aus­tralia has been say­ing in recent days that we believe that a no-fly zone, prop­er­ly autho­rised by the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, enforced by rel­e­vant region­al coun­tries, would assist res­o­lu­tion of a very dif­fi­cult and trag­ic sit­u­a­tion in Libya.

The easy and quick solu­tion for Libya is for Colonel Qaddafi to move off the stage but no one’s expect­ing that will occur so whilst we don’t rule out entire­ly Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil autho­ri­sa­tion it is some­thing which the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil and the per­ma­nent mem­bers will move cau­tious­ly on. We’ve seen such state­ments from Sec­re­tary of State Clin­ton in the last 24 hours which reflect that as well.

Every­one wants to see Libya resolved in a way in which the human tragedy ceas­es. That would see Colonel Qaddafi move off the stage, but that is some­thing which the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty will take in a delib­er­a­tive man­ner. The Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, of course, is sub­ject to veto pow­ers, so whilst Aus­tralia does­n’t rule it out entire­ly or com­plete­ly, it’s not some­thing we expect the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil will rush into.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Would you expect NATO, there­fore, giv­en the poten­tial delays or non-action on the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil front, would NATO — shades of Bosnia in the 1990s — go it alone on impos­ing a no-fly zone?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think tomor­row when NATO Defence Min­is­ters meet they’ll clear­ly talk about Libya as its high­est pri­or­i­ty issue.

The Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al — Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al Ras­mussen has made it clear that NATO inter­nal­ly is doing its prepara­to­ry work for the poten­tial of a no-fly zone, doing the scop­ing stud­ies, putting itself in a posi­tion to respond if the call of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty comes.

I think in the first instance both NATO for­mal­ly and con­stituent coun­tries and the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty would much pre­fer to see the author­i­ta­tive res­o­lu­tion of the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil. As you cor­rect­ly point out though, his­tor­i­cal­ly we have seen with the inter­ven­tion in Bosnia NATO itself mak­ing a res­o­lu­tion and the region­al com­mu­ni­ty and the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty sub­se­quent­ly regard­ing that as a suf­fi­cient enough reflec­tion of inter­na­tion­al law to autho­rise the inter­ven­tion. What we want to see is the human­i­tar­i­an tragedy stopped, Colonel Qaddafi desist­ing from the action he’s tak­ing against his own peo­ple.

Australia’s view is that a no-fly zone would be help­ful in that respect. How­ev­er, it’s not the only method that Colonel Qaddafi is using to oppress his own peo­ple so it would­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly of itself be a com­plete solu­tion but we do believe it would be of assis­tance in reliev­ing the human­i­tar­i­an dis­as­ter that has unfold­ed in Libya.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. A cou­ple of oth­er quick issues before you go, Min­is­ter. You’ve also met today with exec­u­tives from the defence man­u­fac­tur­er BAE. Now, that com­pa­ny is going to pro­vide replace­ments for some of our trou­bled amphibi­ous land­ing craft. Did you get any — any assur­ances that the project on that front is on-track or per­haps those replace­ments, giv­en the prob­lems with the amphibi­ous craft, may be fast-tracked?

STEPHEN SMITH: BAE which is one of our impor­tant defence indus­try com­pa­nies in Aus­tralia are head­quar­tered in the Unit­ed King­dom, so I took the oppor­tu­ni­ty of vis­it­ing UK head­quar­ters. BAE are involved in two of our impor­tant naval projects: the Air War­fare Destroy­ers and the Land­ing Heli­copter Docks which are our amphibi­ous heavy lift replace­ments expect­ed in 2014 to 2016 and they’re both very impor­tant projects.

I’ve indi­cat­ed pub­licly in recent times, we do have prob­lems and dif­fi­cul­ties in mak­ing the tran­si­tion to those Land­ing Heli­copter Docks and I had, with Defence Sec­re­tary Fox, an impor­tant con­ver­sa­tion where I made it clear to him that Aus­tralia will put for­ward a for­mal bid to either lease or pur­chase the heavy amphibi­ous lift ship that the Unit­ed King­dom is putting on the mar­ket, the Bay Class amphibi­ous heavy lift ship. So I for­mal­ly advised Defence Sec­re­tary Fox this evening in our meet­ing, Lon­don time, that we’ll place a bid for that and so we are keen to pick up that.

There’s no sug­ges­tion that our timetable for the arrival of the Land­ing Heli­copter Docks will change. We’re look­ing at that in the mid­dle of decade, 2014 to 2016, but we do need to get bet­ter and more avail­able and more capa­ble heavy amphibi­ous lift in the mean­time. That’s the tran­si­tion plan that we’ve been work­ing on very assid­u­ous­ly for the last few weeks.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: How much will the leas­ing — if Aus­tralia wins the bid — how much will the leas­ing of that UK craft cost?

STEPHEN SMITH: I would­n’t pro­pose to go into those details in advance of a suc­cess­ful bid. Obvi­ous­ly some of those mat­ters are clear­ly com­mer­cial in con­fi­dence so I would­n’t be mak­ing pub­lic com­ments about that. If we are suc­cess­ful in our bid, then quite clear­ly it’s appro­pri­ate that those details be made pub­lic which we would but I would­n’t be propos­ing to do that in advance of a com­pet­i­tive bid process.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Fair enough. Now final­ly, Min­is­ter, Julia Gillard, as you’re aware, spoke to the US Con­gress just some hours ago. The issue of Australia’s rela­tion­ship with Chi­na not sur­pris­ing­ly was heav­i­ly empha­sised by the Prime Min­is­ter but equal­ly you would have been aware of com­ments made by the Repub­li­can sen­a­tor, John McCain, dur­ing his meet­ing with Julia Gillard, where he made some fair­ly robust com­ments about the threat, the very clear mil­i­tary threat he said Chi­na posed, and he stressed that Aus­tralia and the Unit­ed States had to work togeth­er to ensure that Chi­na observed things like free­dom of the seas. Is that some­thing that you agree with and is that — and those sort of com­ments you’d endorse?

STEPHEN SMITH: I saw those remarks from Sen­a­tor McCain and I also saw the Prime Minister’s response which is the same response that Aus­tralia has been mak­ing with respect to Chi­na emer­gence over the last few years, which is we are pos­i­tive and opti­mistic about China’s emer­gence. We want, as the Chi­nese would say, Chi­na to emerge into a har­mo­nious envi­ron­ment.

We believe that as China’s eco­nom­ic prowess ris­es that it is enti­tled to enhance its mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ty and capac­i­ty to reflect that growth in its econ­o­my but we also expect Chi­na to be trans­par­ent about its mil­i­tary strat­e­gy.

In my own con­ver­sa­tions with Chi­nese coun­ter­parts over the years, we both want to and expect Chi­na to emerge in a man­ner which is respect­ful and respect­ing of inter­na­tion­al norms and inter­na­tion­al law and that applies in par­tic­u­lar to mar­itime ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­putes. For exam­ple, in the South Chi­na Sea. These are points I’ve made to Chi­na both pub­licly and pri­vate­ly, most recent­ly in a for­mal sense at the ASEAN plus Defence Min­is­ters meet­ing in Hanoi late last year.

But we remain opti­mistic that Chi­na will emerge in that fash­ion and the rela­tion­ship, the bilat­er­al rela­tion­ship between Aus­tralia and Chi­na, is obvi­ous­ly very impor­tant. The bilat­er­al rela­tion­ship between Chi­na and the Unit­ed States will, in very many respects, be one of the most impor­tant rela­tion­ships in the course of this cen­tu­ry and it’s very impor­tant that Chi­na and the Unit­ed States have a pos­i­tive and pro­duc­tive rela­tion­ship at every lev­el, not just eco­nom­i­cal­ly but also in defence and mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion. So we encour­age that very much.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Defence Min­is­ter, Stephen Smith, in Lon­don, thank you very much for tak­ing the time to talk to us this morn­ing.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Michael, thanks very much.

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

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