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Transcript of interview with Jim Middleton: ABC: 20 August 2009: China - Rebiya Kadeer; Stern Hu; Afghanistan elections; New Zealand.

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20 August 2009

Interview - Jim Middleton, ABC Subjects: China - Rebiya Kadeer, Stern Hu; Afghanistan elections; New Zealand.

Australia's Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd says his nation's ties with Beijing are suffering a few bumps in the road, and that's despite this weeks massive gas deal with China.

But if China's state run media are anything to go by, the relationship is in danger of falling off a cliff. They're accusing Australia of being to blame for the souring of relations,as they've put it, over everything from the row over iron ore prices, the detention on spying charges of and the granting of a visa to exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer.

The rift is certainly significant enough for Canberra to bring home Australia's ambassador to China, Geoff Raby for urgent advice.

Stephen Smith is Australia's Foreign Minister. Foreign Minister, welcome to the program.

STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure Jim.

PRESENTER: You've brought the Ambassador home for consultations. Why wouldn't the Chinese Government see this as retaliation for its attacks on Australia, particularly over the issuing of a visa to Rebiya Kadeer and its handling, too, of the Stern Hu case.

STEPHEN SMITH: He's come back in a normal course of events. He's certainly not been called back for consultations, because that conjures up sending a message to the host country. Ambassadors come back on a regular basis. The Ambassador has been seeing officials. He's seen me earlier today, other ministers. And this is part of our regular activity. It's actually a good time for him to be here.

I mean, I've made it clear publicly, in the course of this week, that whilst we have a very good, productive, long-term economic relationship with China, which we want to continue to take to higher levels, we have a couple of issues in the relationship at the moment and we need to manage those carefully and successfully. And the most prominent of those currently is the Rebiya Kadeer issue. And as I said to the parliament the other day, when the Government allowed her to come to Australia, China was most unhappy about that. We just need to work our way through this period and take a long-term, sensible, positive, constructive view of our relationship, which is both in Australia's interest and in China's interest.

PRESENTER: You say it's a good time for Ambassador Raby to come back to Australia, but it might also seem like an odd time given the need, I would have thought, for you to have your best eyes and ears on the ground in Beijing, at a time of tension.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well it also helps to have a conversation with, as you've said it, your best eyes and ears. He was there in the course of this week to mark, with Minister Ferguson, the sealing of the largest trade deal between Australia and China, and the largest trade deal in Australia's history.

And so I don't accept the view, or the comment of some people, that somehow the relationship is at an all time low. We've just seen an all time high economic decision. We continue to have a positive, forward looking, long-term relationship with China. Our economies are complimentary. It's in our, both of our, mutual national interest to continue to pursue that.

But we're also different countries, different values, and different systems. And from time to time issues and difficulties will arise, and we need to manage those issues and those difficulties. And as I've said, before the Government's decision on Rebiya Kadeer was made, China made very strong representations, at a range of levels, urging Australia not to allow her to enter. I considered those representations and came to the conclusion there was no basis for our ordinary, usual immigration procedures to apply.

And when I advised the Chinese authorities that we would allow her visit, the phrase I've used, they were most unhappy.

PRESENTER: In what way?

STEPHEN SMITH: And they also indicated, as a consequence of that, Vice-Minister He would not come to Australia for the Pacific Island Leaders Forum. We regret that and if China takes other measures, or other responses as a result of Rebiya Kadeer's visit to Australia, we'll also regret that.

But we take a long-term view. We can manage this issue, this difficulty in a calm, long-term, sensible, sober way and that's what we're doing. And our Ambassador's views about that are, of course, relevant and something that we obviously take into account; as we do the views of other officers and other officials.

PRESENTER: Afghanistan is going to the polls today. How will we know whether the election is a genuine reflection of the will of the Afghan people, given the level of intimidation, vote-rigging and other irregularities that are evident?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well by waiting until it's over and then again doing that exhaustive assessment.

PRESENTER: But it can hardly be termed a free and fair election by what would be termed by normal democratic standards can it Minister?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well not normal by Australian standards, or normal by the standards of those countries who have the benefit of having elections in the context of peace and security.

The over-riding context, of course, is this is the first election we've seen, effectively managed by the Afghans, in over 30 years, but done at a time where. there continue to be very significant and difficult security arrangements, or security problems in Afghanistan. And where the Taliban have said, that as a strategic objective, they are doing everything they can to disrupt the election.

But once the election has been conducted, we can do an exhaustive assessment of participation, how effective it was. We've been, together with the international community, under the United Nations mandate, doing what we can to try and provide security, but also provide training and facilities and resources for the Afghan Election Commission and the Afghan Election Complaints Commission.

But we should sensibly do the exhaustive assessment when the polling is over, not try and do it in advance.

PRESENTER: New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is in Australia today, noting with regret, I might say, his country's living standards are below those of Australia.

Is New Zealand paying the price for rejecting the opportunity of a century ago, to become a member of the Australian Federation?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well you really are, Jim, seeking to try to get me to cause a real diplomatic incident. New Zealand made its decision a long time ago, not to be part of the Commonwealth of Australia. And we work very closely with them obviously. And I think if, all those years ago, New Zealand had determined to join the Commonwealth of Australia, then we'd only have one Rugby union team on Saturday night, rather than two, which would be a matter of great distress to all our sporting fans, not just in Australia and New Zealand, but throughout the Pacific and the world.

I think the good thing about the relationship is we work very closely. We have the most successful free trade agreement between two nations that we've seen and it's of, now, over 25 years duration. So the links are very strong and getting stronger. And we're working on trying to make economic regulatory arrangements even smoother, so that essentially the capacity to deal with two economies becomes much easier and that will be to New Zealand's benefit, as well as ours.

PRESENTER: A pleasure, as always Minster. Thank you for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim. Thanks very much.


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