16 July 2009
Interview: Sky News, Australian Agenda with David Speers
Topic: Update on the case of the detained Rio Tinto executive, Stern Hu.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has been out of the country this week. He's now in Egypt, where today he's attending a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement of developing countries.
Later tonight our time, he'll be meeting on the sidelines of that summit with China's Vice Foreign Minister and he will be raising the case of Stern Hu.
I spoke to Stephen Smith from Sharm El Sheikh a short time ago.
Stephen Smith, welcome to the program. What will you be saying to China's Vice Foreign Minister when you do finally meet with him?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'll be meeting with Foreign Minister He this afternoon, Egypt time, so that's late tonight Canberra time.
Because I'm having a meeting with him doesn't mean I'll make all of the detail of that meeting public. The sensible thing to do of course is to make strongly the points that the Australian Government wants to make about the Stern Hu case. But clearly I'll be saying to him it's very important, very important that this matter is now dealt with expeditiously.
So I'm not proposing to detail in public all of the things that I'll say to Vice Minister He. But it is essential, in the Australian Government's view, that this matter now be dealt with expeditiously, and that's certainly one of the central points I'll be making.
DAVID SPEERS: But you've been calling on China to expedite this case and to actually make clear what the charges are for some - well over a week now and still no response from China. Do you think there on the sidelines of that summit at Egypt that you're attending you're going to get a different answer from the Vice Foreign Minister?
STEPHEN SMITH: Let me make a couple of points in that respect.
Firstly, it's quite clear now that the Chinese authorities are looking at matters relating to economic or commercial matters, certainly negotiation so far as iron ore price negotiations in 2009 are concerned.
Our officials have been in conversation with Chinese officials for a week or so now. But we do continue to need some more detailed information about Mr Hu's case and the circumstances surrounding his detention. So we will continue to press that point.
But I think a week on, we've got a much clearer focus now on what in particular the Chinese authorities are looking at. But it remains the case that we need further detailed information; and we will continue to have that sensible conversation with the Chinese authorities. Not just with my meeting today with Vice Minister He, but also generally.
DAVID SPEERS: But that information, that extra information on the case against Stern Hu has come through Chinese media reporting, hasn't it? Have you received anything through official channels?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've seen that pejorative assessment; it's not strictly true.
For the first couple of days I relied upon statements; statements by the official spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also an official statement by the Shanghai State Security Bureau.
So I've seen that pejorative remark. I frankly think it's time we moved on from that.
Our officials in Shanghai, Beijing and Canberra have been in discussion and conversation with Chinese officials. Prime Minister Rudd raised the case with Vice Minister He a week or so ago. I'll be doing that again today.
It's consistent with our approach that we need to take this matter sensibly, methodically, step by step; appropriate and proportionate responses.
It's not a case where, in our view, megaphone diplomacy or quick and easy phone calls will solve a difficult problem. We need to apply ourselves diligently; that's what I'm doing today and that's what I'll continue to do. As appropriate in the future, I'll raise this matter with Chinese officials.
But as I've said previously, we may well be in for a long haul here, so we need to treat this matter appropriately, diligently and be sensible about the use of our diplomacy.
DAVID SPEERS: But just to be clear, Minister, you have received, through those official channels you talk about, information in regards to what Stern Hu is accused of?
STEPHEN SMITH: No more than what we've seen from, or what I have absorbed from official statements by the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Shanghai State Security Bureau. Which is why we continue to want further detailed information about the circumstances of his detention.
And clearly given I've made that point…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] But the information being reported in the Chinese media that Stern Hu is accused of bribing Chinese steel mill officials and had confidential material on his computer, is that what you've been told through the official channels?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I made the point on Friday of last week that the Chinese authorities were looking at matters relating to alleged bribery, in conjunction with the iron ore negotiations of 2009.
Now, we continue to need more detailed information from Chinese authorities, and my meeting with Vice Minister He will be part of that process.
DAVID SPEERS: Now, you said this isn't a case that requires megaphone diplomacy, but yesterday Prime Minister Rudd made it clear to China that the world would be watching how it deals with this case. He made that repeatedly clear through the media. How is that not megaphone diplomacy?
STEPHEN SMITH: What the Prime Minister said yesterday was consistent with what I said on the weekend and what Financial Services Minister Bowen also said, and that's this: it's quite clear that the international business community and members of the international business community and other nation-states will take an interest in this matter.
This is not just a matter which has been limited to Chinese or Australian media or other interests. So of course other nation-states will be taking an interest in the way in which this matter is progressed. And if other nation-states want to…
DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] What you're suggesting there is that China could pay a price therefore.
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not making that comment. I said on the weekend, and I'm very happy to repeat it, which is entirely consistent with what the Prime Minister said yesterday, that China itself does need to think about whether it's handling of this matter has any adverse implications for it. So far as we're concerned…
DAVID SPEERS: And that's not megaphone diplomacy?
STEPHEN SMITH: The Prime Minister and I have made it absolutely crystal clear that we don't see this matter in any way impacting upon our economic and commercial relationship with China. That continues to be very strong, very productive, and very positive.
But we have a difficult and sensitive matter relating to Mr Hu and we continue to apply ourselves sensibly and diligently to that, maximising in our view Mr Hu's interests and trying to get for Mr Hu and good outcome.
DAVID SPEERS: The official you're meeting today, Minister, is one of seven vice foreign ministers in China. There are three assistant foreign ministers and then there's the actual foreign minister himself, Yang Jie-Chi. Why have you not contacted the foreign minister himself over this?
STEPHEN SMITH: For the reason that I've outlined consistently, that this is not a matter which can be solved with one phone call, either a phone call by Prime Minister Rudd or a phone call by me to my counterpart. And…
DAVID SPEERS: Wouldn't it help?
STEPHEN SMITH: … the Government has been making that point consistently.
But I'm not ruling out, and I've never ruled out, at some stage when it's appropriate raising this matter with Foreign Minister Yang. I've said today I'm seeing Vice Minister He. We're both at the important NAM summit in Egypt. He's the leader of the Chinese delegation, I'm the leader of the Australian delegation. It's appropriate that we meet and of course it's appropriate that I raise it with him.
And in the future when I meet with Foreign Minister Yang, as I do on an ongoing and regular basis, of course I'll raise it with him. But this is a matter where methodical application…
DAVID SPEERS: And when will that be? When will that be, Stephen Smith? When will you next see Foreign Minister Yang.
STEPHEN SMITH: I've made no arrangement to meet Foreign Minister Yang at this stage. But when I do I'll obviously make that known publicly, just as I have with my meeting with Vice Minister He. But I'm not proposing to publish my diary or his diary in advance. Nor am I necessarily going to give overt publicity to what have become regular meetings between me and my Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Yang, when we talk about the array of things that go to the China-Australia relationship.
But as appropriate I will raise this matter with Foreign Minister Yang and with other Chinese officials, as appropriate, as part of our very strong conviction that the best approach in this matter was to deal with it sensibly, methodically and proportionately.
And the Australian Government is not the only voice saying that. We've seen in recent days a number of commentators, a number of people say that this is clearly the best approach.
So we're absolutely convinced that this is the best way of proceeding so far as Mr Hu's interests are concerned, and we will continue to do it.
DAVID SPEERS: And yet the US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke says that he will be raising the case of Stern Hu and the other Rio Tinto employees with Chinese Premier Wen Jaibao. It seems the Americans aren't worried about raising this at an even higher level, the level of the second most powerful man in China.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I made clear over the weekend, as Financial Services Minister Bowen made clear over the weekend, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, and as I have made clear again today, this is not a matter where the interest is restricted to Australian or Chinese media or to the people of China or the people of Australia. Other people who trade, who do business in and with China will have an interest in the way in which this matter is progressed.
And so if the United States wishes to raise this matter with China, that in the first instance is entirely a matter for them. But it does make the point which I have made previously and the Prime Minister made yesterday, that the international business community and nation-states who do business in and with China will follow this matter closely.
But because we are charged with the responsibility of seeking to advance Mr Hu's interests, we will make our representations diligently and sensibly in the manner in which I have outlined.
It's obviously sensible and appropriate for me to raise the matter with the leader of the Chinese delegation at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Egypt today. That's what I'll be doing.
And, as it is appropriate, as I meet other Chinese officials, indeed as I meet my counterpart, Foreign Minister Yang, in the future. Of course I will raise it with him.
But I think the key point that I will make today is that this is a matter which needs to be dealt with expeditiously and no doubt people in the international business community and other nations would form that same view. And if the United States raise it, that's a matter for them. We will raise it in the way in which we believe is appropriate at a time and a place of our own choosing, advancing Mr Hu's interests as we do.
DAVID SPEERS: Stephen Smith, just finally on another matter, two dual Australian nationals are amongst those who have been killed in the plane crash in Iran, a brother and sister from New South Wales, both aged in their 20s. Do you have any more information about these fatalities?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, it's a terrible tragedy. Obviously we give our condolences and our sympathy to the family concerned. The two concerned, whom I'm not in a position to identify and wouldn't do that at this stage, are brother and sister from New South Wales. They are dual Australian-Iranian nationals. So it's a tragedy for them but it's also a tragedy for the Iranian people; over 160 killed. So it's a terrible tragic incident.
Because we do have that dual Australian-Iranian citizenship capacity, our officials are in very close contact with Iranian officials, we have an Embassy in Tehran, satisfying ourselves that there are no more Australians on the plane. I don't want to raise that matter too high. There's nothing to indicate that that would be the case but we are checking that.
In the meantime, our hearts go out to the family of the brother and the sister who have been killed. It's a terrible tragedy for the family but a terrible tragedy for the Iranian people generally.
DAVID SPEERS: All right. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, from Egypt, thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.
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