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Transcript of doorstop interview: 9 August 2012: US Force Posture; China; Defence White Paper; Defence budget; Fiji

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Minister for Defence - Doorstop interview, Lowy Institute, Sydney

9 August 2012




TOPICS: US Force Posture; China; Defence White Paper; Defence Budget; Fiji.

JOURNALIST: Minister, you’ve talked a little bit about Hugh White’s book. Do you think that both America and China are sliding towards rivalry and, indeed, war could be a clear and present danger?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I haven’t read his contribution, but I will do that. In my remarks I’ve made it clear that Australia sees the bilateral relationship between the United States and China as being the most important bilateral relationship in the first half of this century.

That is very much the key to ongoing stability, prosperity, investment and security in our part of the world, in the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean rim. And Australia encourages both the United States and China to have a positive and constructive relationship.

We don’t want to see strategic competition between those two super powers and we want to help make sure that China and the United States grow the level of their political and strategic and military to military and defence to defence relationship to the same level as their economic relationship.

They have a very deep engagement economically. We want to see that same engagement at the political and strategic and military and defence level.

JOURNALIST: Your old boss, Paul Keating, says that Australia’s too close to Washington and therefore is offending China. What do you say to your old boss?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don’t speak indirectly to him. If I want to have a conversation with him I’ll go and see him or pick up the phone.

JOURNALIST: But we’re interested in what you want to say.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what I say about Australia’s relationship with the United States is that we have an alliance with the United States - it’s over 60 formal years. The basis of that alliance relationship came in the course of World War II, and that’s an alliance relationship that has served us very well, and continues to serve us very well. And the presence of the United States in the Asia Pacific has, for more than the last half century, been a force for peace and security and stability, and that’s why we want to see the United States maintain and indeed, enhance its presence in the Asia Pacific.

And so our alliance with the United States has served us very well and that’s why in recent times we’ve seen proposals between Australia and the United States to enhance our practical, cooperative engagement with them, whether it’s marines in Darwin or the prospect of greater naval access or aerial access.

So there’s nothing inconsistent with an alliance relationship with the United States and a comprehensive relationship with China. This can be win-win and that’s what we want, not just for Australia but for the region and the world, and that’s why the heart of ongoing peace, stability, security, investment and prosperity in our part of the world is a good relationship between China and the United States.

We can’t be a bridge between the two but we can encourage them to work on that relationship, and we’ve been encouraged in recent times by some of the developments, including high level ministerial contact, both in China and in the United States and the early signs that they are growing their strategic and political and defence relationships.

JOURNALIST: So what do you make of some of the suggestions that have come out in the paper today that our Defence Force are somewhat being endangered by some of the recent Defence-

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I reject it absolutely and there’s no basis for it. As I made clear in my remarks here, yes, we’re going through a tough financial time but in the last budget we ring-fenced and excluded from any budget cuts our overseas operations: Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands and East Timor and we excluded from any of the implications of the budget cuts any of the kit or equipment or resources that goes to those deployments, particularly Afghanistan.

Over the last two to three years we have expended over one a half billion dollars on additional force protection measures in Afghanistan.

So the assertion that what has occurred in the budget is putting our people on overseas deployments at greater risk is just wrong. There is no basis for it.

JOURNALIST: But are they doing the same job for less?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there are two things here. Firstly, the assertion that I’ve seen in the papers this morning is that the fiscal restraint in the budget puts our Defence Force personnel who are deployed overseas at greater risk. That is just wrong. We have advisably and for very good reasons excluded our overseas operations from any budget cuts.

Indeed, so far as Afghanistan is concerned, we’re spending in the order of $1.5 billion to $2 billion more over the last two or three years on force protection measures.

Secondly, yes we are going through a period of constraint. But what we’re trying to do through that period of constraint is to protect our core capability and protect our key and core functions. We’re not asking people to do the same for less. It is quite clear that in some areas the Defence Force will be doing less, and that is on the record as well.

But the suggestion I’ve seen today that those fiscal measures add to the danger of our people overseas is just wrong and it’s - and importantly, that is not the advice that I have received from the Chief of the Defence Force or from the relevant Service Chiefs.

JOURNALIST: Minister, what do you say to Stephen Fitzgerald, Australia’s first Ambassador to China, who says there’s great sensitivity in China about greater access to Australian bases for US forces, and that we’re not being independent enough in our relationship with China?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, two things. Firstly, as I said in my remarks, if you’re worried about 250 marines in Darwin and you’re from China, then you’re not really worrying about 250 marines and Australia, you’re worried about your relationship with the United States. That goes to the heart, firstly.

Secondly, Australia makes independent foreign policy national security judgements. We do that in our national interest and that is reflected by the relationship that we have with United States, it’s also reflected by the relationship we have with China. So we make our own independent judgements and under this Government it’s been the case - under previous Labor administrations it’s been the case, including for example under my

predecessor, Minister Beazley who oversaw the changed arrangements to move from US facilities on Australian soil to joint facilities, in particular Pine Gap.

So if former Ambassador Fitzgerald is worried about 250 marines in Darwin, he’s really worried about the United States-China relationship and just as we didn’t in his time do anything other than make independent judgements about our foreign policy and national security, the same remains the case today.

JOURNALIST: The Opposition has said that bipartisanship is fundamental [indistinct] in Defence now. Do you think it would be wise to delay the White Paper until after the next election?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ve seen those remarks from the Shadow Minister. I haven’t seen those remarks from the Leader of the Opposition, and I haven’t seen anything in practical experience that has seen any change to the arrangements that have occurred party-to-party, Government-to-Opposition in the national security space. I’ve been familiar with those for the last four or five years.

I think Senator Johnston’s remarks were aimed at budget and financial matters in particular. I’ll simply make this very obvious point: at no stage, at no stage, whilst they had been making comments about budget or financial matters has either the Leader of the Opposition, the Shadow Treasurer, the Shadow Finance Minister or the Shadow Defence Minister committed to reinstating those budget cuts.

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask in regards to the ADF cadet who’s now going to stand trial over alleged indecent acts towards another female cadet, what do you make of this case?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I wouldn’t be commenting on any case, which is before, or about to go before the courts.

JOURNALIST: Are you taking any other steps, other than alliance building obviously, in the region to protect Australia’s national security, you know, with the shift in the [indistinct] power base?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the strategic shift that has been occurring for a number of years continues. That will be reflected by a 2013 White Paper. The Force Posture Review, which looks at the appropriate positioning

geographically of the Australian Defence Force, will be a very important part of that.

But we will continue to manage our national security interests in a responsible and appropriate way. That includes having a Defence Force which is capable of carrying out its priority tasks but it also includes engagement by Australia and by the Defence Force in our region and internationally. That’s a very important part of what we do and the Force Posture Review made that clear, that our engagement as a Defence Force, whether it’s on training and exercises, whether it’s making a humanitarian assistance or disaster relief contribution, this is a strategic asset for us.

We do it very well and we want that to continue, and with the draw down from the Middle East, from Afghanistan, we will have a great opportunity to do that even more into the future.

JOURNALIST: Does it also mean increasing your intelligence gathering abilities?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have a very strong intelligence service. We have a very strong intelligence community and they have the appropriate cooperation arrangements with our friends and partners.

JOURNALIST: Minister, can I just ask, you mentioned Fiji among a number of other countries, but we’re putting a High Commissioner back into Suva. Any thought about renewing Defence ties?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I obviously welcome the fact that Foreign Minister Carr and Foreign Minister McCully from New Zealand have effected these changed arrangements.

We’ve had a difficult relationship with Fiji and we hope this is some small progress. We want Fiji to return to democracy. Fiji is one of a small number of countries in the Pacific who has a defence force - we’re not proposing to change our current arrangements, which is effectively no contact with Fiji defence or military until such time as they return to democracy.

Thanks very much.