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Transcript of interview with Chris Uhlmann: ABC 7.30: 28 March 2012: Cocos Islands; Force Posture Review

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Minister for Defence - Interview with Chris Uhlmann, ABC 7.30

28 March 2012



DATE: 28 March 2012

TOPICS: Cocos Islands; Force Posture Review

CHRIS UHLMANN: We’re joined by the Defence Minister Stephen Smith.



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


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 officials 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


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 got to 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 got to 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


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


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 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, thank you.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Chris. Thanks very much.