QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION – AUSTRALIAN MEMBER COMMITTEE OF THE COUNCIL FOR SECURITY COOPERATION IN THE ASIA PACIFIC (Aus-CSCAP)
QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION
AUSTRALIAN MEMBER COMMITTEE OF THE COUNCIL FOR SECURITY COOPERATION IN THE ASIA PACIFIC (Aus-CSCAP)
22 MAY 2015
The Minister has kindly agreed to answer some questions from the audience, so I have some helpers with microphones.
I might just first start off by asking you a question Minister. This morning the Sea Scout meeting participants discussed issues in the South China Sea, and these developments have become very much front and centre of the discourse on developments in our region. We as a country have traditionally prioritised, and rightly so, the alliance with the US and a growing defence relationship with Japan, the Five Power Defence Arrangements have served us very well over the years. But what are you planning in terms of regional security cooperation, especially with our ASEAN neighbours? An Australian build – is that something the Government would consider?
Well can I start with a general principle Georgina, and that is that we want to see a peaceful region. That is our number one priority. And we believe that obtaining that priority will be most likely achieved if we all subscribe to international rules-based order. It’s in Australia’s interest, obviously, as a trading nation, in our economic interest, to ensure that free transit, unencumbered transit, of both sea and air, through international waters, through our major trade routes, remains the case into the future.
But we also believe that that’s in the best interest of those nations that we trade with. A bit like one of Newton’s principles, there’s often an action and a corresponding reaction. And countries, like individuals, in making decisions should always be wary of the unintended consequences as much as any intended consequence of a particular course of behaviour or course of action. And so we would say to all our neighbours in the region that actions can lead to reactions, it can lead to miscalculations, and that wouldn’t be a big outcome for any of the countries in the region, all of which are to an increasing extent and a larger extent in the future will be trading nations that rely increasingly for that trade on their own economic future and prosperity. So in a sense, we’re in this together and we need to work this out together.
Minister, thank you for that. John from ANU, the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Thank you for that overview on the white paper. I noticed you didn’t mention Daesh or ISIS at all. We’ve got troops in Afghanistan; you’ve got troops in Iraq. The argument’s been made that these are [indistinct] for Australia wars of choice, they’re a long way away, our contributions are niche and marginal in terms of outcomes, and the training team that’s there in Iraq echoes the training teams that were there a decade ago, and we don’t see much consequence from that time. I’m wondering if you could comment on whether or not- an observation I’m sensing that our distraction with events in the Middle East and our contributions there, even though they’d be sustainable in terms of Defence capability, have been very distracting from conceptually engaging in Southeast Asia…. I wonder if you could comment on the enduring significance, the relative significance of our engagement in the Middle East, and the significance of needing to focus intellectually, emotionally, conceptually in developments…
Thank you. I don’t see them as an either-or proposition. We’re engaged to the extent we are in the Middle East, remembering that Afghanistan was our longest military engagement ever, going for a decade, 34,000 or 35,000 of our ADF personnel served in Afghanistan over that 10-year period, so we’ve had a long recent engagement in the Middle East just in relation to Afghanistan.
There’s obviously a currently more modest engagement in Iraq with the Air Force component, and then the Special Forces in Baghdad and now the regular Army forces going into Taji as part of the new training mission there. So, we are engaged there. Why are we engaged there?
Because since 9/11, since Bali, since a series of atrocities around the world, it’s reached out to us. And we don’t believe as a Government, as a nation indeed, that we can simply ignore the reaching tentacles that have come across the world to countries like Australia. And if incidents can happen in downtown Sydney and in suburban Melbourne, well then it’s in our backyard whether we like it or not.
So to come back to my first point, it’s not an either-or proposition. We are engaged to the extent that we are in the Middle East, but obviously our primary, our major focus is going to be our territorial area, and then the region in which we exist. And I think you will see in terms of the strategic considerations that come out of the white paper, that will be reflected. It won’t simply be an isolationist concern about Australia’s territorial region itself, it will be one which recognises that we are part of this very vibrant region, the Indo-Pacific as I’ve called it today, Southeast Asia included, and that from time to time we will be engaged more broadly globally because we come to the decision that we’ve been brought into such engagements, and we need to respond.
Thank you Minister. I have a question for- there were calls for Australia to send military aircraft and ships to patrol the South China Sea given what’s happening there, and also there is talk about having nuclear station- stationing B1 bombers from the US, so there’s concern about that. So how likely [indistinct]? Thank you.
Well, in relation to the B1 bomber, there was an observation made by I think the- it was the Assistant Defence Secretary in the US Congress about it being stationed here. Well that’s not the case. We don’t have any stationing of foreign forces in Australia. I suppose the exception is the training that occurs for Singapore in terms of its Air Force, which is closer to something on a more ongoing basis. But even with the Marines who are rotating through Darwin they’re doing that, they’re rotating through Darwin. So there’s been a long-standing practice in this country, it goes back in relation to America in terms of planes I think to the Gillard Government, so it’s not something that was invented by this current government in terms of the ability of defence personnel and equipment assets to actually come to Australia for a variety of reasons, including usually training exercises, and I- that will continue into the future. But that’s entirely different to what seemed to have come from that report that somehow we were going to have a squadron of B1 American planes permanently based in Australia, which is not the case and as far as I know hasn’t been ever discussed with Australia in those terms. So that’s that issue.
In terms of the South China Sea, can I just make the general principle again, we would urge all nations involved in the various arterial claims in the South China Sea to resolve them in a peaceful manner, to resolve them according to an international rules-based system, to uphold the freedom of other states and nations to sail their ships through that area to allow their planes to fly over that area because it is a vital sea and air route so far as international traders are concerned and we believe it’s in the interest of all countries to maintain that freedom of movement, freedom of transit through that area, just as much as we would say through other parts of the world that are involved in international trade.
Thank you very much Minister. Graham Percy from here in Melbourne. We hosted earlier this week, Mr Macfarlane here in Melbourne and from a ministry perspective, I’ve noted from your comments today that you are focusing on the importance of cooperation and our ability to [indistinct] our allied partners…. as the opportunities going forward for industry cooperation in working with countries such as ones that you’ve mentioned for industry and you had that making a – sort of have a flow on effect for us in Victoria for jobs and industry.
Well, there is already considerable industry cooperation which doesn’t usually get mentioned. It’s usually the negative stories that make their way into the media but let me just give you a couple of examples. CEA, radar innovators and manufacturers based in Canberra, well that’s world class in terms of what they produce and obviously they’re looking for markets beyond Australia as well and that will occur. You’ve got Marand here in Melbourne that is making the tail fin for the Joint Strike Fighter. You’ve got TAE, I think it is, in Brisbane who are making the covering for some of the components boxes to go into the Joint Strike Fighter, the cooling boxes for that. So, there are many examples like that where Australian industry – Australian manufacturing is world class, it’s not only manufacturing for Australia but is involved in manufacturing for other countries and in a – inter-operable way, you know, part of a Joint Strike Fighters being made in Australia. So, that’s a good example of that and we need to talk more about those examples I believe, because all the negative talk simply gives the impression that somehow we’re not capable of doing anything in Australia when in fact that’s not quite true at all. It’s really the opposite.
I’d like to ask a cheeky question, if I may…
Doesn’t mean you’ll get an answer [laughs].
…but try me.
Okay. I’d like to ask you a question about some of then recent press about Project [indistinct] how Japan and US and China and those of us who follow China I think [indistinct] Chinese [indistinct] we remember Tony Abbott’s comments about Japan being our best friend in the region. So, I was wondering if you could make some comments about your plans for the [indistinct] in China in an official capacity or are you going for a family holiday? And how – what it’s like to make new friends in the region with China and India…
Well, we’d like to be best friends with all our neighbours in the region including China and Japan because if we could achieve that we will live in a peaceful region and we’ll all thrive as a result of that. The report today about Operation Talisman Sabre and who’s been invited to observe it, the basic fact is nobody’s been invited at this stage. So, the report is not even based on a true premise in relation to that so we haven’t got to that stage of inviting observers to it and I expect we will invite a range of observers as we’ve invited in previous years. I mean, as I said in my speech, we are interested in relation to China, we have official’s level meetings, we have educational exchanges. We think that those things are good. We also believe that the joint training exercises that we undertake with various countries are actually to the advantage to of all countries concerned because of armed forces can get to know each other and have an understanding of each other then hopefully that also will lead to a more peaceful outcome than we otherwise be the case where lack of knowledge and lack of personal rapport, even down to the level of individuals can lead to suspicion and suspicion can lead then to wrong decisions sometimes being made which is undesirable.
So, our attitude as a trading nation is that we are friends of the world. If you think about it, Australia’s probably got more people who have come from more parts of the world to settle here and make Australia home and regard themselves as part of this great nation than I suspect any other country in the world. So, that’s our cultural basis if you like in this country and therefore one in which we wish to be optimistic about our future, I’m not negating or downplaying tensions and challenges that will exist from time to time. Of course they will but our outlook is one to be optimistic about the future and one in which we would like to have a role in which we can live in a peaceful region and indeed a peaceful world.