DAVID LIPSON Foreign Minister, thanks for your time. What’s been the reaction today from your counterparts as to this announcement re MH370?
JULIE BISHOP During the course of the meeting I have just attended with members of the East Asia Summit, that is the ten nations of South East Asia and eight other nations including Russia, China, the United States and Australia, there was a great deal of comment about MH370 to the extent that nations recognise that it is a positive step towards locating this airplane which disappeared 16 months ago.
We are thinking of the families of those who were on board that flight, indeed about two-thirds of the passengers were Chinese, so it is a matter of great concern to the nations here but also internationally in terms of the safety and security of civil aviation.
We hope this is the beginning of the opportunity to locate the rest of the plane and therefore solve the mystery of the disappearance of MH370.
DAVID LIPSON The difference of the certainty is somewhat unusual where the Malaysian Prime Minister seems absolutely certain and the French authorities have said that there is a high probability that it’s from MH370. Where is that different messaging coming from why is it different?
JULIE BISHOP I think that that they have both now confirmed that it is part of MH370, the difference is with timing. Overnight Prime Minister Najib made his statement very early in the morning confirming that it was from MH370. Advice I had early this morning was that it was still in the realm of high probability, so don’t be too conclusive about it. But as time goes on, we find that the likelihood that it is from MH370 increases, and given that, there is only one plane unaccounted for according to the aviation experts then it’s likely to be MH370. Now, we were working on the assumption that the French led investigation team still has a couple of investigations (recording cut off). I’m sure that the investigations into this tragic accident will continue for some time to come, but at present our focus is on ensuring that we can focus our search effort on the region where it’s likely to locate the rest of MH370.
DAVID LIPSON Turning to other matters, has any consensus emerged from talks today on the disputed territories in the South China Sea?
JULIE BISHOP The issue of the reclamation work in the South China Sea was raised by a number, if not all, of the countries represented at the East Asia Summit today. There was consensus in the room that we all want a peaceful, stable, secure environment in our region. There was consensus that there should not be any attempt to interfere with freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight but concerns were raised by the level and scale of work that has been undertaken in the South China Sea.
There are territorial disputes between various claimants – China, Philippines and others. Australia doesn’t take a position on the territorial claim. We don’t take sides but we have urged restraint, we have urged that territorial claims be settled peacefully and we have called for a halt to all reclamation work and I think that that was very much the consensus of the meeting.
DAVID LIPSON How concerned are you and is Australia that there could be militarisation of the South China Sea as a result of this?
JULIE BISHOP Of course we are concerned, 70 per cent of our trade is through the South China Sea. So this region is vitally important for us, the sea lanes, the flight paths are vitally important for Australia so any attempt by any country to militarise this region by building artificial reefs or structures is of concern to us and we will continue to make our concerns known.
I understand that the reclamation work has essentially ceased. We have assurances from China that their work will be used for the public good. For example, they have claimed that they will be placing lighthouses and search and rescue equipment and opportunities for other countries to access some of the work that is being done on the South China Sea for search and rescue efforts and the like.
DAVID LIPSON That is really interesting. Will Australia have access to that as you understand it?
JULIE BISHOP That is a very interesting question, that’s one I put to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi yesterday. If these artificial reefs and structures are being built for the public good then how can a country like Australia access it? He said he’d get back to me.
DAVID LIPSON Okay. Do you see it as an act of antagonisation as the Americans do or is this just mere defence as China sees it?
JULIE BISHOP Our concern is that it risks increasing tensions in the region. It actually raises the risk of miscalculation, or misjudgement and so that’s why we want all countries to cease reclamation, to resolve their territorial claims peacefully, pursuant to international law including the UN Law of the Sea. And we hope that all nations, having had a pretty frank exchange today, see the good sense in calming things down, in de-escalating the tensions and resolving things peacefully. We all have an interest in a peaceful, stable South China Sea.
DAVID LIPSON Because China hasn’t ruled out has it, putting military assets on these reefs?
JULIE BISHOP To paraphrase Foreign Minister Wang Yi - if they have structures and equipment and buildings on land that they claim is theirs, they claim they have a right to defend it. Now of course this comes back to the fundamental territorial issue – who owns this land, these islands, these structures and who has the rightful territorial claim to them? Australia won’t enter into that issue. It can be resolved through negotiation pursuant to international law but it does cause us concern and I’ve certainly raised my concerns both privately with Foreign Minister Wang Yi but also in the broader forum today.
DAVID LIPSON The relationship between Jakarta seems to be getting back on track. You rightly won’t say what was discussed when all the advisers were asked to leave the room during the bilateral last night with Retno Marsudi. That’s an unusual move though, to ask the advisers to leave. Clearly there must be some challenging issues, shall we say.
JULIE BISHOP It is not so unusual. From time-to-time foreign ministers ask the officials to leave the room if there is something particularly sensitive they want to talk about, or they want to have a more open and frank discussion than one that is reported word-by-word by a whole range of officials from both sides. So I have had one-on-one meetings with a number of foreign ministers over time, they’ve always been very useful and very insightful and that was the case with Retno Marsudi last evening. She asked if we could meet one-on-one, our officials left the room and we had a very candid discussion but as you rightly observed, the relationship is on track.
We discussed a number of ways that we can quickly build even stronger connections in trade, investment, education and of course our longstanding relationship on counterterrorism, countering violent extremism and the work that our security, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are doing to keep our respective countries safe.
DAVID LIPSON Back in Australia today the Immigration Minister revealed that there has been 22 boats turned back. How does Indonesia view this policy now and why has that that veil of secrecy been lifted?
JULIE BISHOP Well I think it’s important that we recognise the policies that were put in place to prevent deaths at sea, 1200 people have drowned at sea because they paid people smugglers to transport them in un-seaworthy vessels across one of the most dangerous stretches of ocean. And of course the Abbott Government was determined that this would not happen on our watch so we are determined to ensure that the policies we put in place will deter people smugglers from plying their trade. Indonesia is also a beneficiary of this. If we stop the people smugglers they won’t be plying their trade in Indonesia and we won’t have the boats leaving shores in such dangerous and risky circumstances. So what we’ve done is confirm that our approach is working, I know that Labor will be divided as Labor has acknowledged that our policies are working. Let’s not forget that 50,000 people made that dangerous journey under Labor’s watch, 1,200 died at sea. There were thousands and thousands of children in detention and now there are about 100 or so children remaining waiting to have their claims processed. So something like 2000 children were in detention under Labor. We have made dramatic changes through the implementation of our policies.
DAVID LIPSON Minister thank you for coming.
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