DAVID SPEERS Foreign Minister, thank you for your time. There has been another serious terrorist scare in Germany overnight. How worried should Australians be about going to a footie match or concert right now?
JULIE BISHOP Well, it is deeply concerning that there was another terrorist attack in the making but fortunately the authorities were able to foil that attack. And this underscores the need for there to be significant security, intelligence, information sharing amongst the nations who are opposed to this evil terrorist organisation, who are determined to defeat it, and we should not allow the threat of terrorism to strike fear and intimidation in the hearts of people. We must normalise our lives, we must go about our lives. Otherwise the terrorist have achieved their aims. But in Australia we have beefed up our security, law enforcement, intelligence capability. We are exceedingly well prepared for any potential attack. We have foiled indeed a number of attacks in the recent years and particularly in the last 12 months. Our threat alert level is at high which means an attack is likely, not imminent or not underway but likely, and therefore our agencies, our law enforcement officials are ever alert but we must go about our business. We must go about our normal lives.
DAVID SPEERS There has been a lot of talk in recent days about the situation in Syria. Do you sense from all the talks you’ve had a greater willingness on the part of key powers to find a political solution?
JULIE BISHOP There was work underway to find a political solution in Syria. I think it’s widely recognised that a military solution is not going to be the only answer. Obviously, the military option is necessary and there are operations underway. However, a political solution is needed to stop the civil war inside Syria and then a united front can be focused on Daesh, on ISIL, the terrorist organisation. So a political solution is badly needed.
DAVID SPEERS And what would that look like from your perspective?
JULIE BISHOP Well Australia has always said all options should be on the table. There have been a number of powers who have said that a precondition to any discussion on a political solution must be the removal of President Assad. I think there is now a broader recognition that he may need to be part of the transition, because if you remove President Assad, you have to replace him with someone and there is no agreement about who that someone would be.
DAVID SPEERS Is that a recognition do you think on the part of the United States as well?
JULIE BISHOP The United States and a number of other countries as well see that we all have to work together on the military and political solutions.
DAVID SPEERS And that Assad might have to stay for a period of transition?
JULIE BISHOP He may well be part of the transition. He has no legitimacy as a leader, I mean, he has carried out horrific attacks on the people of Syria. There is no love for President Assad amongst the majority of Syrians, but if you remove him it might leave a vacuum. Someone has to be in control of the military, in control of the administration. If there were an obvious candidate to replace him, I think we would have heard about that person by now.
DAVID SPEERS And as far as Russia is concerned, do you get the sense that Vladimir Putin is now more willing to actually see Bashar al-Assad go at some point?
JULIE BISHOP I don’t think that the Russians have ever particularly supported President Assad but they have certainly supported the status quo. They have equities to protect in Syria. They are keen to maintain influence in Syria but in the aftermath of some horrific terrorist attacks, the bringing down of that Russian plane or the attacks in Paris, I think there is a significant willingness on the part of major powers to work together to find a solution to the civil war in Syria and then there’ll be a single united front against the terrorist organisation.
DAVID SPEERS There’s bit of progress on that front through this so called Vienna process involving a number of powers putting up a timeframe to transition. Australia hasn’t been part of these talks even though we are the second biggest military contributor in Iraq and in Syria. I know that Japan and Canada also haven’t been a part of this. Why?
JULIE BISHOP Well indeed, there was a thesis put forward in the Australian newspaper today that I had been snubbed. That is completely unsubstantiated, that doesn’t hold water. There are 23 nations who are contributing militarily to the fight against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Fourteen of them were not at the Vienna talks. The Vienna talks were convened by the United States and Russia. It focused on the P5, that is the Permanent 5 members of the Security Council and specific Middle East countries as well as Iran, but specific Middle East countries that can make a significant contribution to the peace process. There are 65 countries involved in the anti-ISIL coalition and 50 of them were not at Vienna talks.
So Australia was not snubbed, but of course I think we do have a contribution to make. I have been at a number of talks in both Paris and in New York on this issue and we’ve been involved in what’s called a small coalition talks, that’s 30 countries, and I believe we’ve made a significant contribution - both militarily and in terms of our views.
DAVID SPEERS You would like to be part of this Vienna process?
JULIE BISHOP I think Australia should have its views heard. We had a very good meeting with President Obama…
DAVID SPEERS ….And is it Russia that’s stopping us?
JULIE BISHOP I believe that Russia wants to keep the group small but it’s not like a snub against Australia or Japan or Canada or any of the other 14 nations that are contributing militarily. I think it’s a focus on ensuring that a smaller number of key players around the table are more likely to get a breakthrough than a much larger number who may have conflicting views.
DAVID SPEERS How would you characterise Australia’s relationship with Russia at the moment?
JULIE BISHOP We have a working relationship with Russia. Prime Minister Turnbull met with President Putin. They had very positive discussion about Syria, given that in the aftermath of the horrific attacks in Paris, there is this renewed willingness to come up with solutions. Clearly, we have a deep issue with Russia over the downing of Malaysian airlines MH17 in which 38 Australian citizens and residents were killed. Russia has taken a very different approach to that and it’s been challenging working with them. We also opposed Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea, its breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty, so there are a number of international issues where we differ with Russia, but we certainly have a working relationship with them.
DAVID SPEERS Just back on the military campaign against Daesh, do you think the strategy is working at the moment or does it need to change?
JULIE BISHOP I believe that the airstrikes are having an impact. Indeed, we saw France intensify its involvement in recent days. I believe that we will see an increase in airstrikes which will degrade, disrupt the bases. There is a focus on the ISIL leadership and if one can destroy the leadership, then that will have an impact on the military aspect of ISIL and its organisation but...
DAVID SPEERS Does Australia have a role there in these more intense airstrikes?
JULIE BISHOP Can I just finish? The problem is we’re dealing with a perverse ideology and it’s very difficult to defeat an idea, an ideology. What we have to do is take away the physical infrastructure, the leadership structure and then starve it of foreign fighters, starve it of financing and we would have made some progress. Does Australia have a role to play? We are already a very significant military contributor. We are the second largest in the US-led coalition, second largest military contributor with about 780 personnel…
DAVID SPEERS Could our airstrikes extend to going after the leadership in Raqqa?
JULIE BISHOP We haven’t been asked to do that. We spoke with President Obama yesterday about the support we’re providing and he was very grateful and very appreciative of what we’re doing in Iraq. We were trying to build the capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces to take that territory and to defeat ISIL in Iraq, and this is important. The local defence forces, the local security forces, those on the ground have to have the capacity to protect their own country. We have to learn the lessons of the past and I believe that building the capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces is the best way of defeating Daesh in Iraq.
DAVID SPEERS Is there a need at some point for a ground assault, a stronger ground assault, from whoever is going to do it to actually defeat ISIL?
JULIE BISHOP Clearly, we’re part of the coalition and these are the discussions that the coalition is having. These are matters that the United States and Russia, Iran and others who have a much greater military commitment to it, will determine over the coming days and weeks, but I’m not seeing any indication that anyone believes at this point that putting foreign troops on the ground in Syria will bring an end to it. Building up the capacity of the Syrian forces, if one can get a political solution, would be by far the best outcome.
DAVID SPEERS Can I turn to the South China Sea, a big issue in this part of the world and on the sidelines of the APEC Summit, the East Asia Summit as well. Will Australia actually follow the US lead in its sailing of the American warship through the Spratly Islands?
JULIE BISHOP The Australian Navy already traverses the South China Sea and we do it in accordance with international law through international waters. What is happening at present though is rather interesting. There is an arbitration before the International Courts brought by the Philippines against China, and that goes to the very issues of who has sovereign right over some of these islands, and that will also set some legal principles against which China’s actions and the actions of other claimants can be judged. That case starts next week. There’s likely to be a decision early in 2016, and I think that that will set the ground rules for this issue. We don’t take sides, we don’t back one claim against the other. That’s a matter for arbitration and negotiation, but we do urge that all parties settle their claims peacefully, they settle them according to international law and that in the meantime they de-escalate any tensions. I note that President Xi said that China did not intend to militarise the islands. Well, we should take him at his word.
DAVID SPEERS Or do you though because I mean China has been building military scale runways on some of these islands? Is that entirely peaceful?
JULIE BISHOP President Xi said that they do not intend to militarise and I know that Australia is not the only country that has noted that and intend to hold him to it.
DAVID SPEERS Do you believe it?
JULIE BISHOP Well, he made the statement publicly so in the light of this arbitration, I think that that will set the rules, it will clarify the rules surrounding claiming sovereignty and territory over these islands.
DAVID SPEERS So we aren’t going to sail our navy ship that close to the Spratly Islands as close as the Americans did?
JULIE BISHOP We will continue to traverse the South China Sea according to international law or according to the international seas, and we do that often now. And freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight are fundamental tenets and we certainly uphold the right to do that.
DAVID SPEERS Final question. You were in the -- part of the meeting between the Prime Minister and the President Obama…
JULIE BISHOP Yes.
DAVID SPEERS And you’ve seen now Malcolm Turnbull in these dealings. How does he differ to his predecessor in dealing with world leaders?
JULIE BISHOP Well, I don’t want to make comparisons. Each leader brings their own style, their own tone, their own qualities to it. It was a very long meeting. It was the longest bilateral meeting that I’ve been present at with President Obama. It was about 90 minutes, it was a very long meeting. They covered a whole range of topics. There was an ease and informality between them. They obviously got on very well. They discussed a lot of matters from philosophy through to economics through to security issues and I think that there was a rapport there. And President Obama is a very charming man and very easy to get along with and I think he and Prime Minister Turnbull hit it off. In fact, the President invited Prime Minister Turnbull to visit as soon as possible. He suggested in the Washington winter which is coming up about now. So they’re obviously going to get together in the United States shortly.
DAVID SPEERS Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, thank you for joining us today.
JULIE BISHOP My pleasure.
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