BOB CARR: …gentleman it was an honour for us to welcome our Singaporean ministerial colleagues here today for the 7th Singapore Australia Joint Ministerial Committee meeting.
The committee was launched in 1996 by Prime Ministers Goh Chok Tong and Paul Keating, and they said back in 1996, quote: Australia and Singapore share a common view of the strategic environment globally and in the Asia Pacific region. And they said: the significance of this partnership goes beyond its importance in the bilateral relationship. For Australia it is a very important element in its engagement with the South East Asian region. These approaches still guide the committee today.
Today's talks focused on regional strategic issues and long term cooperation on security, defence and economics. They included a discussion on the South China Sea. Both Australia and Singapore want to see a de-escalation in tensions. We want to see the economic gains that have represented a revolution in Asia, South East Asia in particular, in the last 40 years continue undisrupted by a focus on strategic matters.
Both Australia and Singapore want to see a de-escalation in tensions, we want to see the matter – this matter resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law.
Foreign Minister Shanmugam briefed the meeting on his visit with his Prime Minister to China for six days last week and for further discussions in Singapore with Chinese ministers and officials, and he briefed us on the Chinese perspective on the South China Sea which he and his colleagues were able to absorb at those meetings.
There was a discussion on regional engagement through ASEAN and the EAS, in particular we're working towards a successful EAS leaders' meeting in November.
It's my honour to ask my Singapore counterpart, Foreign Minister Shanmugam to add to my remarks. After that we'll hear from the Trade and then from the Defence Ministers.
KASIVISWANATHAN SHANMUGAM: Thank you, Minister.
As Minister Carr has indicated we covered a wide ranging set of issues, both bilateral as well as regional. And it gave us an opportunity to exchange views on regional issues including the South China Sea.
Our Prime Minister just made a six-day visit, I accompanied him, and then back in Singapore, Singapore and China had a bilateral discussion, a regular, previously fixed discussion, foreign ministry to foreign ministry.
It gave us a good understanding of China's position, and both China and Singapore understood each other, and these discussions have given me an opportunity of updating ministerial colleagues from Australia on China's views and our understanding of China's perspectives.
And we moved on to ASEAN related issues, the centrality of ASEAN, the unity of ASEAN and the need for ASEAN to play a role on regional issues of importance.
CRAIG EMERSON: On the economic front, we've just returned, of course, from APEC where Singapore has been a very active player in the ongoing quest to open up markets to each other. And I thank, on behalf of Australia, Singapore for its open competitive philosophy, a philosophy that is shared by Australia, and the work that Singapore does in the various international forums seeking to further liberalise trade in an environment of rising protectionist sentiment.
At APEC, of course, you'd be aware that we did agree on the list of 54 environmental goods on which tariffs would be limited to no more than 5 per cent, and a potentially revolutionary agreement on the mobility of our young people studying in each other's universities, of academics doing the same and indeed of establishing campuses in each other's countries.
So against that backdrop, we discussed, obviously, the bilateral relationship. In that respect, it is in great shape. We have a Singapore-Australia free trade agreement and in addition to that, an ASEAN Australian-New Zealand free trade agreement. So, we've been at the forefront of regional trade liberalisation.
There's a further development in which Singapore, as an ASEAN nation, has played an important role and that is the prospect of launching negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
This is an ASEAN initiative. We thank Singapore and the other ASEAN nations for generating momentum around the concept of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. It would involve ASEAN plus its six partners with which it has free trade agreements – and they are China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Australia and India. We hope to be in a position where leaders, later in the year in November, would be able formally to agree to the launch of those negotiations.
And of course, Singapore is a great ally in the global forum of trade liberalisation that is in the long existing Doha Round of negotiations – I think it's in its 11th year now and Singapore has been instrumental in agreeing to find new pathways to complete those negotiations.
And we've agreed to break the round up into its constituent parts, as a way of breaking this impasse. We believe that there are many paths to the mountain top and that trade facilitation should be a priority in Geneva. And the reason for that is by streamlining each others customs, procedures and those behind-the-border measures, trade facilitation could constitute 44 per cent of the total benefits of the Doha round – two-thirds of which would accrue to the developing world.
So, we thank Singapore for its leadership here regionally, obviously bilaterally and multi-laterally in the global trade talks. We're great allies in all of this. We are usually singing from the same song sheet and it's a great pleasure to be working with my counterpart, Minister Lim, in seeking to achieve even further trade liberalisation in this the Asian region, in this the Asian Century.
LIM HNG KIANG: Well, I concur with what Craig said. Our views are very similar on most of the extent of singing from the same song sheet, but I can assure you Craig is a much better singer than I am.
CRAIG EMERSON: He's just saying that.
LIM HNG KIANG: We review the bilateral economic cooperation is in good shape but we ought to do more. We also spent some time talking about how we can promote regional economic integration and one of the key projects that we are doing is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
And as Craig said, we are putting the framework together so that our leaders can review what we have done. And if they are agreeable they can launch the negotiations for the RCEP at the end of the year when we meet in November.
So, I think the economic cooperation between us is going strongly. We have excellent, very high quality free trade agreement between ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand and we'd like to use that as a template when we go into the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I was very pleased to welcome Minister Ng to Australia for his second visit to Australia. And this morning before the joint ministerial committee meeting we had a bilateral meeting, a formal bilateral meeting, our fifth bilateral meeting since we both became Ministers for Defence.
And the Australia-Singapore Defence to Defence, military to military relationship is in very good order. It's in first class shape and we're very pleased with the continuing cooperation which has expanded considerably in recent years.
We of course work closely together in Uruzgan Province, in Afghanistan, and I was very grateful to receive from the Minister Singapore's condolences for our recent five fatalities.
As well, in terms of our practical cooperation we see Singapore helicopter pilots trained in Oakey, and when I was last in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue the Minister and I signed a renewal of the Oakey Agreement.
As Member for Perth as well as Minister for Defence I'm very happy to see the continuation of extensive training of Singaporean pilots at RAAF Pearce in Western Australia, and of course we see on an annual basis unilateral training at Shoalwater by Singapore which we welcome very much. And most recently of course we saw a substantial Singaporean contribution to exercise PITCH BLACK in Darwin.
In addition to that bilateral cooperation, which again as I say is first class, we work very closely together in the relevant defence regional architecture, in particular the Five Powers Defence Arrangement. And last year we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Five Powers Defence Arrangement, and we work very closely in that respect.
More recently, we worked very closely in the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus, the Defence Ministers East Asia Summit format. Australia and Singapore both attended the inaugural or founding meeting in Hanoi in 2010 and we are looking forward to attending the next meeting in Brunei, particularly given that we'll be supported by an East Asia Summit supported military medicine exercise, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise, which is a significant and important development strongly supported by both Australia and Singapore.
So our Defence to Defence, our military to military relationship is in first-class order. The Minister and I meet regularly, and again pleased to see him visit Australia for his second formal visit to Australia as Minister for Defence.
NG ENG HEN: Well, let me thank Minister Smith for his comments. Very few extra points to add.
Just, if I could characterise our Defence talks with two adjectives, it's been affirmation and appreciation. Affirmation of the same perspectives we share in terms of the regional security outlook in the Asia-Pacific region. Affirmation of our understanding of the platforms that we're – poor countries are working towards, working within – the FPDA that Minister Smith mentioned, ADM plus.
Minister Smith mentioned the ADM Plus process which Brunei is hosting next year. He talked about the 18 nation exercise including all the partners, extra-regional partners which is the significant military to military cooperation platform.
We also want to express our appreciation for the training and opportunities, whether it's bilateral or our pilots, helicopter pilots, as well as ensure [indistinct] and – in the number of airbases in and around Australia.
We talked about and exchanged notes on how we can continue to improve the dialogue among the 18 nations in the ADM Plus mechanisms and how we can continue to provide platforms like the Shangri-La Dialogue to also increase understanding and mutual collaboration.
So, I would affirm what Minister Smith has described that our Defence ties are excellent, and we want to continue to keep it that way and we will get it.
BOB CARR: Wondering whether anyone would have any questions.
No questions? Okay.
QUESTION: Minister Carr, Mark Dodd from The Australian. That both sides want a de-escalation of tensions in the South China Sea should come as, you know, no surprise, but are there any planned initiatives on the table to achieve that outcome?
BOB CARR: Well, we'll continue – speaking for Australia, we'll continue to talk to the parties and we'll emphasise that we take no side in the competing territorial claims, but we do urge a resolution, a peaceful resolution of those claims in accordance with international law.
We found the briefing from our Singapore colleague, Foreign Minister Shanmugam very useful and it's striking that the position of Singapore is identical with that of Australia and vice versa.
We've – both nations have a huge interest in peaceful resolution of these competing territorial claims. So much of our trade is – flows through the region being discussed, but there's an additional point to and it's the atmospherics and the very image of south-east Asia.
We want the world to continue to take note of the economic transformation of this region. In 40 to 50 years there have been extraordinary changes in life expectancy, the percentage of the population in higher education, in literacy, throughout ASEAN, and we want the world to continue to be impressed by what freer trade and market economics is producing in this part of the world.
We don't want it to be – we don't want the world to be distracted by a story around territorial disputes.
QUESTION: I have a question for the Singaporean delegation; I'm not sure who'd like to answer. What impact has Qantas's decision to move its stopover base from Singapore to Dubai? What impact will it have on tourism and revenue for Singapore?
LIM HNG KIANG: Well, this is obviously a commercial decision and Qantas moving its hub from Singapore to the Middle East will of course have some impact on us. By the same time there are air slots that Qantas can use, and the air traffic in Asia, in South East Asia is growing. So, we look forward to Qantas using those air slots and to serve their – to service the rest of Asia.
So what we may lose in terms of the European floor, we hope to be able to gain in the Asia and the ASEAN floor, and I think it just behooves us to work closely together – both airlines and Singapore as a air hub.
QUESTION: Defence Minister Ng, could I ask you for reflections on the situation in Afghanistan, and what your view is of challenges and issues coming up with the transition?
NG ENG HEN: Well, we have been involved – deployed together with the Australian Defence Force and the Singapore Air Force – Singapore Armed Forces, as Mr Smith said, in Uruzgan, on a number of different units there, rotated through Uruzgan. And I think that we've found that from the military to military that's been extremely useful, and we've learned a lot in terms of operational experience.
I think both the ADF and SAF understand the larger picture, operational difficulties notwithstanding. We've invested substantial time and efforts in the reconstruction and stabilisation efforts. We are in the process of phasing out together the other coalition partners, and we'll continue to be deployed together for the foreseeable future, and consult one another in terms of when we feel it is appropriate to leave Afghanistan when it's in a better and a stable situation for their own Afghan national armed forces to be able to increasingly take on added roles.
QUESTION: How do you feel the prospects of ongoing peace are in Afghanistan once…
NG ENG HEN: Ongoing?
QUESTION: Ongoing, or peace, the prospects for lasting peace, and the ability of the local armed services and police, to hold ground that has been established?
NG ENG HEN: I don't think anyone who has been deployed in Afghanistan considers it – considers the challenge easy. We know that there are difficulties ahead, but we continue to be involved in training the Afghan nationals, and we'll continue to persist and leave when we think – when we have trained them in various elements to be able to stabilise the country.
This is an ongoing process, and we continue to consult one another, in terms of what we can contribute in Afghanistan.
BOB CARR: Maybe one more question.
QUESTION: Any update from Mr Smith?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm happy to add the Minister has outlined our joint commitment to the transition process in Afghanistan. Despite all of the recent difficulties and the tragic nature of recent events, which the House will remark upon later today, we remain of the view that we're making progress in terms of transition. We believe in Uruzgan we're on track to see that transition effected over the next 12 to 18 months, we formally started in July.
But as the Prime Minister and I have always said, one has to work on the basis that there will be bad days ahead, that there will continue to be difficulties, and the Taliban continue to focus on the high profile propaganda-motivated assassination attempts, continue to take credit for the so-called insider attacks, or the green on blue attacks, and consider to rely very much on the roadside bombs, or IEDs.
We welcome very much the efforts made by the International Security Assistance Force led by the Commander of ISAF, General Allen, to make progress on redoubling ISAF and the Afghan National Security Forces efforts to vet members of the Afghan National Security Forces. We welcome the recent developments in Afghanistan, which have seen a number of Afghan National Army members removed from service, and that is as a result of redoubled efforts on vetting procedures, and the like.
But again, I put this in context, whilst these so-called insider attacks are terrible, they are deeply undermining of trust when you're dealing with a security force including the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police of between 300,000 and 350,000, the numbers in that context are quite small.
Having said that, because they do, in reality and in potential, undermine confidence and trust so ferociously, we've been working for some period of time now very closely with the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan National Security Forces to minimise the risks.
We continue to chase Hek Matullah, but I'm in no position to update any further progress on that front, since the last time I spoke publicly about these matters.
In the course of this week and next, we'll see five funerals, and this will be a terrible time for the families concerned, and a terrible reminder to Australians of the loss that we have suffered.
But we believe making a contribution to a United Nations mandated stabilisation force, where we are joined by over 50 countries, with the objective being to minimise the prospects of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism, continues to be in our national interest, and continues to make a long term contribution to the protection of Australian citizens in South East Asia, and elsewhere.
QUESTION: And with the removal of the – the security removal of that percentage of Afghan forces across ISAF, how many have been removed in Uruzgan, involved in Australian training programs?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don't have the precise number, I'm happy to make that available subsequently. The announcement was made at the end of last week, both ISAF and Australia have asked for further details from Afghan authorities. So the precise implications in Uruzgan will become clearer subsequently, but we are very pleased with the way in which the Afghan authorities in Uruzgan Province and generally, have responded to our urgings to take further steps on the vetting front.
And also we are very pleased with the way in which Afghan National Security Forces have joined with us, and the International Security Assistance Force in the chase for Hek Matullah, and as a general proposition, the Afghan leaders that I speak to, are as shocked and appalled by the events that have transpired, as we are.
QUESTION: They have been removed though, some have been removed?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, yes.
QUESTION: Any estimation in general…
STEPHEN SMITH: You're dealing here with an estimation from Afghan authorities of a couple of hundred – two to three hundred people out of an
Afghan National Security Force of 300,000 to 350,000. So, you're talking about small numbers across the country, and very small numbers so far as province by province, or district by district is concerned.
QUESTION: Just one final brief question for you, Senator Carr, your colleague, Minister Bowen, has announced two Australian contractors to provide the medical and the support services for offshore processing. What assurances can you give to the Governments of Nauru and Papua New Guinea that their locals will be involved in service provision and employment through those two companies, which was something both Governments were very keen on?
BOB CARR: I'll leave that to my colleague to address.
Thank you very much.
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