Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

E&OE

10 February 2008

Interview on Asia Pacific Focus

JIM MIDDLETON: Well it's a new year and Australia has a new government with a new look foreign policy after a decade of the Howard doctrine.

Stephen Smith was something of a surprise appointment as Kevin Rudd's foreign minister but in the last fortnight, he's made a whirlwind overseas trip for getting to know you meetings with some of Australia's most important allies, as well as paying host to a couple of key foreign ministers from the region as well Stephen Smith was in Perth when I spoke to him.

Stephen Smith, welcome to Asia Pacific Focus.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much Jim.

JIM MIDDLETON: In the past fortnight, you've visited Washington, New York, Tokyo. You've hosted visits by the Chinese and Indonesian foreign ministers, that's a pretty high pressure introduction to the world of foreign affairs, isn't it?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well they all reflect our priorities Jim, our fundamental alliance relationship with the United States, our view that we need to engage more in the United Nations and that United Nations needs to take a more central focus in international affairs, and thirdly our very strong view that our engagement in the Asia Pacific has to be very robust.

So either the visits or the foreign ministers that I've received in Australia reflect those three fundamental pillars and priorities of the new Australian Government's foreign policy approach.

JIM MIDDLETON: How's your Mandarin?

STEPHEN SMITH: Not as good as the Prime Minister's but I'm picking up the odd word here or there.

JIM MIDDLETON: Iraq aside, in a nutshell how does foreign policy under this government differ in emphasis from the Howard years?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we very strongly believe that Australia needs to take much more of a multilateral approach. We need to be engaged much more in the United Nations and we also believe that United Nations itself should take much more of a central role in international affairs. We have a strong view that there should be, for example, Security Council reform of the United Nations, that the Security Council should reflect the modern world, which is why we've suggested for example that both India and Japan should become permanent members of a reformed United Nations Security Council.

We also think that there's been very much of a silence on disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation issues and we would like to play a greater role in that and see much more activity in that internationally.

So far as our own region is concerned, we think that we've got to put the shoulder much more effectively to the wheel in the Asia Pacific region, including in some of the fragile Pacific Island nation states. And in the case of the Pacific we think we've effectively got the chance for a fresh start both in the Solomon Islands and in respect of our relationship with Papua New Guinea.

JIM MIDDLETON: What about Afghanistan then, which Kevin Rudd frequently described as being the cockpit of the war on terror? There are suggestions that the war there is not going particularly well, that it may need, and the Americans certainly think it would need, more combat forces. Is there any chance at all of Australia enhancing its combat troops in Afghanistan?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we have about a thousand troops in Afghanistan. There's no current suggestion or contemplation that we would increase that number. But we have two very strong views which I put to the United States administration and which our Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon and I have been putting publicly and that is firstly we believe there needs to be a much more robust international community commitment to the work in Afghanistan, that starts with NATO countries but it needs to be wider than that and that goes to the application of combat or security arrangements.

But secondly we also very strongly have the view that in Afghanistan it can't just be a question of security or military arrangements. We also need to be looking to the nation building, capacity building arrangements, which is why we're currently contemplating what more we can do as a nation in Afghanistan for humanitarian assistance, for aid, for capacity building, infrastructure, governance arrangements, police training and the like.

So they're the two, if you like, strong views that we have and that's in the context that of course in early this year we've seen a deteriorating situation in Pakistan and we believe we've now got to look at Afghanistan in that context as well, which we regard with considerable concern.

JIM MIDDLETON: Is that a very long way of saying no more Australian boots on the ground in Afghanistan?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we don't have in contemplation any increase of the numbers that we have. We have a substantial combat force there, about 1000 troops. They're in southern Afghanistan doing a lot of the heavy duty and difficult and dangerous work. So we don't have an increase of our combat troops in contemplation at this time.

JIM MIDDLETON: You were in Japan just a week ago. Does this government agree with John Howard that Japan is now second only to the United States as an Australian security partner?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we certainly have a very strong economic security and strategic partnership with Japan. I think it's true to say that in our own region, in the Asia Pacific region over a long period of time, Japan has been one of our closest friends but also our strongest supporter in terms of Australia engaging in the Asia Pacific and becoming part of relevant regional forums.

We have a security cooperation arrangement with Japan and we also have the trilateral security and strategic dialogue with Japan, United States and Australia. And I've made it clear that we see both those dialogues continuing. We regard our relationship with Japan as being a very, very important partnership which goes, not just to trade and investment, but also to security and strategic partnerships and that's a fundamentally important relationship.

JIM MIDDLETON: Japan's neighbour and rival, China, is quite clearly taken with the fact that Australia for the first time has a Prime Minister who speaks Mandarin. Does this symbolise, as the Japanese suspect, a shift in emphasis in Australian foreign policy?

STEPHEN SMITH: One of the things that I was very pleased to hear when I was in Japan and it was also reinforced in my conversation with the Chinese foreign minister, Mr Yang, was that the recent trip to China by the Japanese Prime Minister was very, very successful. There's a positive and constructive dialogue between Japan and China and both Japan and China take the view that they need to have, as I've described it, a positive and constructive relationship that's good for China, good for Japan. It's also good for our region and good for the globe as a whole.

So when you look at the various relationships between those large nation states, China and the United States for example much more engaged and entwined economically, having constructive dialogue. That point was underlined both when I was in the United States and in my conversations with the Chinese foreign minister.

Relations now between India and China are very positive. So all of these individual relationships can be positive, can be constructive, which leads to benefits for the individual nation states concerned but also benefits for the region and for the globe generally.

JIM MIDDLETON: Security was on the agenda when you were in Japan. Did you tell Mr Koumura that Australia would no longer take part in the quadrilateral security meetings involving Japan and the US and India?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I made it clear when I was in Japan, as I did with the Chinese foreign minister later in Canberra, that whilst we want to continue and proceed with the trilateral dialogue between Japan, Australia and the United States, we weren't proposing to take part in what had occurred as a one off which was a four way conversation between ourselves, Japan, United States and India. And I think that's a view that is shared by the other nation states concerned.

JIM MIDDLETON: On that question of the quadrilateral dialogue, is the point there that the Chinese do have some reason to believe, to fear that this was aimed at encirclement of China?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don't think there's any point in being sort of coy or shy about it. It's quite clear that China expressed concern at that time that this was somehow, as it was put I think at the time, an attempt or an exercise at containment. Since then we've seen a much more positive and constructive dialogue and relationship between China and Japan. And the trip by the Indian Prime Minister to China was also regarded as very, very successful, a point that the prime-ministerial, the Indian prime-ministerial envoy made to me in Perth in the last month.

So I think since then we've seen, as it was put to me in Japan for example, very much a thawing and a warming of relations between China and Japan and also an improved dialogue between India and China. And I think that's very encouraging, very positive and that's the sort of approach that Australia wants to see.

JIM MIDDLETON: Mr Smith, thanks very much. Thanks for joining us on Asia Pacific Focus. I hope it will the first of many such visits.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much Jim. I hope to see you again on a number of occasions. Thanks very much.

Ends

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