JOURNALIST Minister, can I ask quickly about Syria? The Russians are being blamed for bombing hospitals and schools in Northern Syria is there any comment you would like to make on that?
JULIE BISHOP We’re deeply concerned about the level of hostilities taking place in Syria, and we call on all parties to respect a ceasefire and to ensure there is an opportunity for the humanitarian crisis to be brought under control and that discussions about a political solution can bear fruit, so we call on all parties to ensure that hostilities cease that the ceasefire can take place and that we can then focus on the humanitarian crises as well as the fight against the terrorist organisation DAESH or ISIL that is still carrying out brutal attacks not only in the middle east but exporting its form of terror around the world.
JOURNALIST Minister your approach to China has been categorised as a ‘please explain’ when you go to Beijing. Is that fair enough? Is that what you are going to be doing?
JULIE BISHOP I have raised with Foreign Minister Wang Yi on numerous occasions the question of what China is doing in the South China Sea. Given that President XI has said that China does not intend to militarise the islands, then of course we ask what the construction work on the islands will be used for. In the past, Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said they will be public goods, and so, I am seeking more detail as to how other nations could access these public goods.
We don’t take sides in the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. We want to ensure that these disputes are resolved peacefully, but we do express concern about the reclamation and the construction work of all claimants. China is not the only one who has done this, although obviously on a much larger scale, and so we seek more detail as to what the constructions on these islands can be used for.
JOURNALIST Do you really believe they could be public goods?
JULIE BISHOP This is a conversation I have had with Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the past and I will have another conversation given that since we last met formally President Xi has said publically in Washington that China did not intend to militarise the islands.
JOURNALIST Given what you have said, China’s claim that they will be used for humanitarian, peace-keeping, research and development, would Australia seek to play some sort of role in maybe a .. aircraft there
JOURNALIST (female) Could help them
JOURNALIST (male) Is there some… Would you seek access to the islands?
JULIE BISHOP Well certainly Australia seeks to work with all partners in the region on humanitarian and natural disaster relief. As I indicated in my speech to the Japan National Press Club, we work very closely with Japan in humanitarian, natural disaster relief work in our region and if there were opportunities to work more closely with China in that regard we would certainly consider those opportunities.
We have just agreed a Pacific Strategy with Japan whereby we will enhance our diplomatic, defence and development cooperation in the Pacific. This will include what we do together in natural disaster relief and I would hope that we would be able to engage with China in a similar fashion.
JOURNALIST What about specifically accessing these islands?
JULIE BISHOP This is a conversation that I will continue to have, to have with the Minister, Wang Yi and that will be the subject of discussions in our meeting in Beijing as it has been on previous occasions when I have met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
JOURNALIST On the Pacific. Is there, could the agreement signed between Australia and Japan last night, could that be construed as a sort of counter-measure to Beijing’s efforts and aid and particularly its strategic program in the Pacific Islands?
JULIE BISHOP It’s not intended to be that all. We welcome more cooperation with countries in assisting developing Pacific Island nations. A number of countries already do provide assistance. What we are seeking to do is align our efforts. Australia and Japan already work very closely together in the Pacific but this strategy is more broadly about diplomacy and development of course, but also about defence cooperation in the Pacific. I have attended the Pacific Island Leaders Meeting in Japan, hosted by Japan where we talk about greater collaboration and cooperation between the major economies in our region and particularly the small island developing nations in the Pacific. So this is a reflection of a reality where Australia and Japan do work closely together but we think there are more areas we think we can benefit by aligning our efforts.
JOURNALIST Is it that an effort though to counter perceptions that China is undermining Australia and New Zealand strategic influence in the Pacific?
JULIE BISHOP We welcome China’s investment in development in the Pacific indeed Australia and China are working together with the government of Papua New Guinea on some health outcomes in PNG. And that’s one of the first joint development projects we have done with China and we are evaluating that and I hope that we will be able to do more of this kind of work with China where we align our development dollars and priorities. In line with what the Pacific Island nations themselves want and ensure that the aid investment, the aid dollar is spent wisely in the Pacific.
JOURNALIST Is there a danger when you look at the South China Sea, of continuing to take explanations at face value that might seem plausible to others that you gently drift into a policy of appeasement?
JULIE BISHOP That’s not the way I would describe it at all. The reason I am seeking clarification and more detail from Foreign Minister Wang Yi is that in recent months President Xi has said that China does not intend to militarise the islands therefore, I seek further details on the purpose reclamation and construction work.
JOURNALIST Have you had any input into President Obama’s meeting with the ASEAN leaders?
JULIE BISHOP At this stage the meeting is proceeding on the 15 and 16 US time. I think it is significant that President Barack Obama is hosting a stand alone ASEAN Leaders Forum in California. It certainly gives weight to the rebalance policy that is not only about strategic and defence issues but also about economic matters. I feel sure the President will be promoting a view that the ASEAN countries should continue to resolve tensions in the South China Sea through peaceful negotiation and a code of conduct that the ASEAN countries have been negotiating with China, the ASEAN countries have been negotiating for some time with China over a Code of Conduct and I am sure the United States as Australia does, believes this is a positive step forward if that can be achieved.
JOURNALIST You have only a brief meeting with Prime Minister Abe this afternoon, you spoke about your hope that he might come to Australia this year will you extend a formal invitation today?
JULIE BISHOP I believe that Prime Minister Turnbull has already done that but I will be reiterating our desire to maintain annual leader’s meetings and hopeful that Prime Minister Abe will be able to visit Australia. It might be a short meeting with Prime Minister Abe but I had a two and a half hour meeting with Foreign Minister Kishida last night so I am sure we have covered a whole range of issues that affect both Australia and Japan. But I am looking forward to my meeting with Prime Minister Abe, I have met him on a number of occasions and he is a very close friend of Australia.
And I understand the meeting between Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Turnbull was exceedingly positive and they were very engaged with each other.
JOURNALIST Minister can I just clarify on the reclaimed islands in the South China Sea. So if China invites Australia to make use of those reclaimed islands will that be something you will consider?
JULIE BISHOP Let’s take it a step at a time. I will be raising this issue with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as I have in the past and depending upon the answer he gives we will look at the situation but I want to have a conversation post President Xi’s statement that they don’t intend to militarise the islands.
JOURNALIST Sorry just to clarify that, you will be having a conversation about seeking access to those islands.
JULIE BISHOP No. I said I will be seeking details from China as to the purpose of the land reclamation and construction work that is being carried out given that President Xi said in Washington that China did not intend to militarise the islands.
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