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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