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Defence Minister responds to US military conc -

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Defence Minister responds to US military concerns

Broadcast: 28/03/2012

Reporter: Chris Uhlmann

Defence Minister Stephen Smith explains the rising presence of US armed forces in Australia and
responds to strategic concerns some may have.

Transcript

CHRIS UHLMANN, PRESENTER: We're joined by the Defence Minister Stephen Smith.

Welcome.

STEPHEN SMITH, DEFENCE MINISTER: Pleasure.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Is it likely that Australia will agree to US basing its aircraft in the Cocos
Islands?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the point I've made today is that we've got three priorities arising out of the
announcement that the Prime Minister and President Obama made in November which is a Marine
taskforce rotating through the Northern Territory, greater access to our RAAF bases in the Northern
Territory for US aircraft, and in the longer term, greater naval access to HMAS Stirling, our
Indian Ocean port from my home state of WA. The proposal about Cocos Island is a long-term
prospect.

CHRIS UHLMANN: But officials are talking about it now, aren't they?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well official are certainly talking to journalists. But the point I've made today is
there's nothing that's come or been discussed or decided at my level. And I made this point in the
run-up to President Obama's visit that neither commentators nor officials should get ahead of
themselves.

CHRIS UHLMANN: So are you annoyed at some of these officials for talking to journalists? Because
clearly they have been. An Australian official was actually mentioned in the Washington Post
article.

STEPHEN SMITH: In my experience, officials always talk to journalists. That's just part of the ebb
and flow. But the key discussion in this area - what are the discussions that I have with in the
past Bob Gates or currently Leon Panetta? And I made it clear at the time of the President's visit
that we were looking in the long term to Cocos Island as a potential strategic asset. It's also
mentioned, as I made clear today in our own force posture review which deals with positioning our
own assets properly for the Asia Pacific century. And so we've been transparent about our
priorities, but also transparent about the fact that there is a (inaudible).

CHRIS UHLMANN: But in principle though, Minister, this is where we're heading, isn't it?: there
will be US spy planes based on the Cocos Islands.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well you can't make that assumption.

CHRIS UHLMANN: But that's where we're heading ... ?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well you can't make that assumption.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Have you got an in-principle agreement on that?

STEPHEN SMITH: There has not even been a conversation about Cocos ...

CHRIS UHLMANN: Not by officials?

STEPHEN SMITH: ... other than a - well the only conversation that matters in this context is a
conversation that we might have at AUSMIN, our ministerial consultations, a conversation I might
have with Bob Gates in the past or Leon Panetta now. And I make precisely the same points when I
saw lots of speculation in the run-up to the President's visit about US bases here and a whole
range of things. The only conversation we've had at the appropriate level about Cocos Island is in
the long term we see it as a potential strategic asset. There's been no conversation about what we
might do. And as we've made clear publicly through my publication of our own Force Posture Review,
if you want to do anything serious at Cocos, you've gotta spend over $75 million to fix up the
runway before you start.

CHRIS UHLMANN: $75 million is not all that much in the scheme of things, particularly not in the US
military budget.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well last time I looked at the US military budget they were going in billions of
dollars of cuts because they're under financial pressure just as we are.

CHRIS UHLMANN: And President Obama made it quite clear that none of those cuts would come in the
Asia Pacific; in fact they would be increasing spending here.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well and that's an unambiguously good thing because this is, if you like, ...

CHRIS UHLMANN: So they should be able to afford $75 million for a runway upgrade.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, before you start spending money, you've gotta have the conversation at the
strategic level, which hasn't occurred. But this is a pinpoint really of a broader issue which is
in our very strong view, the presence of the United States in the Asia Pacific region is
unambiguously a force for peace and security and for prosperity and that's why we strongly support
what we're doing already, our three priorities that I've outlined under the Force Posture Review.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Is that a view that's shared by Beijing though?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, our own judgment is that in the course of this century, the most important
bilateral relationship will be between the United States and China and that's why we encourage the
United States and China to have a positive and productive bilateral relationship. And the point
we've made to China is that it's not inconsistent Australia having a comprehensive relationship
with China as we do and also having a military alliance with the United States.

CHRIS UHLMANN: You would understand that in the United States there is a live discussion about the
way it goes about dealing with China and it's being driven by those who believe that China should
be contained and those who believe that China should be allow to grow in the way that you believe
it should.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's not possible to contain, in my view, a country of a billion people. I
don't believe it's possible to run a containment policy so far as China is concerned. Equally, it
would not be possible to run a containment policy so far as India is concerned. So we see in this
century not just the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the ASEAN economies combined,
and the international community, our region, needs to adjust to these and that's why we say those
bilateral relationship - US, China, India - are the key.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Do you think that the Australian people have a clear enough idea yet of how
significant this increase is of the US military presence in Australia? We're talking about - that
group of Marines will be quite a formidable force when it's finally all here.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we've been very transparent about what we've decided to do with the United
States. The first group, 250 Marines who rotate through the Northern Territory, arrive very
shortly, next month. That'll grow over a period of five or six years to 2,500, again rotating. When
the Indonesians were here last week or the week before with Bob Carr and I, when my Singaporean
counterpart was here last week, we've also made it clear that we see the presence of the US doing
joint exercises with Australia also reaching out to ASEAN countries to do likewise. That's a good
thing, particularly in the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief area.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Will nuclear-powered submarines and ships be coming to HMAS Stirling in the west?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we see - we envisage that, that in the future there'll be greater access to
United States naval vessels, including submarines. We see visits at the at the moment. What we do
envisage is that the frequency of those visits will increase. And why that is, if you like, third
cab off the rank is because we do see the Indian Ocean rim rising in importance. And that's why we
have, as well, sought to substantially enhance our own engagement with India, not just on the
general bilateral front, but also military-to-military and defence-to-defence arrangements.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Stephen Smith, we'll have to leave it there, Thankyou.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Chris. Thanks very much.