2 October 2009
Interview - Sky News Australia
Subjects: Australia's relationship with China, the tsunami in Samoa, and earthquakes in Sumatra.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, Australia was of course the first Western country to recognise communist China when Gough Whitlam visited there in 1973. But more recently the relationship has been strained over the case of detained Australian businessman, Stern Hu, in Shanghai, and the decision by Australia to grant a visa to exiled Uighur leader, Rebiya Kadeer.
The diplomatic stand-off has been the biggest challenge confronted by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith during his time in the post. And the minister joins us now from Perth.
Stephen Smith, thanks for joining us.
Before we get to China, and the relationship as it currently stands, of course I need to ask you about the disasters in this region over the past couple of days.
First on the tsunami in Samoa, what's the latest information you have there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Unfortunately the latest information is that today we've confirmed the death of another very young Australian. So that's four confirmed deaths, and also a confirmed death of a New Zealand citizen who had permanent residency in Australia. So that's tragic for the families concerned.
We continue to provide resources and assistance to Samoa. The first plane load arrived overnight from Brisbane with a medical specialist and also medical equipment. A further plane load of equipment will arrive in the very near future with disaster relief equipment, from tents, tarpaulins, water purification, and the like. And two more planes, one a C-130 Hercules and one a charter plane, will arrive later this afternoon, again providing additional personnel.
So we're providing all the assistance that we can. And at the same time, when the charter flight returned from Samoa to Brisbane this afternoon, it carried with it 26 Australians who were able to get on the plane. And so we've returned those Australians to Australia.
And when the Defence Force C-17 returns, we're hoping to have on board six injured Australians who have been or are hospitalised but that will require a medical judgement as to whether they're fit to travel. But we're trying to get those injured Australians back to Australia as well when the C-17 Air Force plane returns, which will some time tonight or tomorrow, I expect.
DAVID SPEERS: Are there many injured Australians there waiting for this sort of transport to get out?
STEPHEN SMITH: We've had six who have been hospitalised or who continue to be hospitalised, and we're looking at getting them off.
Whilst none of the injuries are life threatening, some are serious, very serious broken ribs, and the like.
We'd like to get them off and certainly the Government has authorised that to occur. It's just a question of whether they can be taken from the hospital or from Apia, the capital, to the airport and then gotten on board the plane. But we'd like very much to get them home, so a bit more time before we see whether that comes to fruition.
And just in terms of Australians in Samoa, overnight we had six Australians unaccounted for. This morning we were able to account for their presence in Samoa, and they're all safe.
What we still don't know of course is whether there are Australians there who we don't know about and we just need a bit more time to confirm that that's not the case.
But all of the Australians who were either registered under Smartraveller or who we knew of their existence in Samoa have been accounted for. We just need to make sure there weren't Australians there who we weren't aware of. There's always the chance that they of course were holidaying in the south-east of the island where the worst of the tsunami hit.
DAVID SPEERS: Yeah, and may not have told officials that they were in that area.
STEPHEN SMITH: That's right.
DAVID SPEERS: ... let's turn to the earthquake off Sumatra in Indonesia. I know it's still difficult to know the full extent of the devastation there. But the latest reports are that it's going to be more than 400, possibly more, fatalities. Do you know if any Australians have been caught up there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Just generally, we've had two earthquakes; one last night about 8.15pm Sydney time, another one this morning. So we've got two severe earthquakes in the Padang area.
And the latest official death tally was 75 but we know it's going to be in the hundreds, we know it will be much more than that. We're dealing here with a very significant tragedy.
We've got 14 Australians whom we are aware of are in the area. My most recent advice was that we've made contact with seven of those, so we're trying to track down seven more.
As well as that, of course, there will be Australians potentially in the area who haven't registered or who we don't know about. Padang is a bit of a surfing hub and there are reports that a couple of Australian surfers at least may have been in the area.
So, as a consequence of that, we're sending a team up to Padang from Jakarta now; a Foreign Affairs official, some AusAID officials, and a Defence official. So we've got a presence on the ground to do two things: to try and check on the whereabouts of Australians, but also to make assessment of the damage because we're expecting the possibility that we may be asked by Indonesia to assist with the immediate search and rescue operation because of the extent of the damage after two severe earthquakes.
DAVID SPEERS: All right. Minister, let's move on to China, where there have been, aside from this devastation in the region here, celebrations in Beijing of course for their National Day; 60 years since the People's Republic of China was founded.
We did see a quite remarkable display of military muscle as part of this parade. Do you think this was designed to intimidate the world?
STEPHEN SMITH: No. China has essentially over the last few decades, done a military march every 10 years. Of course today is a very significant day. Its 60th anniversary, it's a remarkable achievement. One of the remarkable features of the achievement has been of course the exponential economic growth of China. And you have to expect that as a nation's economy improves, develops, and expands, particularly as significantly as China's have, that there will be some military modernisation. So we're seeing here military modernisation. That's to be expected.
Of course what we have indicated to China, in the past and into the future, is that there's nothing wrong with military modernisation provided that's transparent to the region and transparent to China' neighbours. And...
DAVID SPEERS: Has China been transparent enough?
STEPHEN SMITH: We have made the point to China that we believe that China should be transparent as to its strategic intentions so far as its military modernisation is concerned. And, frankly, we think there could be more of that.
The Chinese have said that they want to emerge as a significant world influence and world power into what they describe as a harmonious environment. What Bob Zellick, when he said it, as an Assistant Secretary of State for the United States, now at the World Bank, of course, that we want to see China emerge as a responsible stakeholder.
So we're confident that that can occur. But on any measure, China in the course of this century will be a significant international power and influence, one of the great super powers in the course of this century. So obviously its emergence and the nature of its emergence is a very important thing, not just to Australia but to our region and the rest of the world.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, of course the Australia-China relationship has been somewhat strained in recent months over the Stern Hu issue and Rebiya Kadeer, the granting of the visa to the exiled Uighur leader here in Australia.
How would you describe relations at the moment?
STEPHEN SMITH: Relations are very good. I think it's important with Australia's relationship with China, to take what the Chinese would well describe as a long-term patient view. And on a day like today you can afford to look at the historical sweep.
We get a lot of credit in China for our very early recognition of China, and with that early recognition in 1972 the adoption of a one China policy to which Australia has adhered to under successive governments now for over 35 years.
So the early recognition, then the significant economic developments starting with minerals and petroleum resources but now much wider than that, we see a very strong relationship between Australia and China.
Yes, of course, from time to time there will always be difficulties. We have different values, different political systems, and different approaches. And so the Stern Hu matter and the Rebiya Kadeer visa issue have drawn some attention and focus in recent times.
But if you take a long-term patient view, both of the past and of the future, then our relationship continues to be a very good and a very strong one. And we believe, with confidence that any of these issues can be managed and we believe that's occurring.
DAVID SPEERS: And, Minister, just finally on Stern Hu, I understand he had another consular visit recently. Can you tell us at all how he's holding up and how his case is progressing?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, he was seen by consular officers in the last couple of days in Shanghai. He continues to be well. He continues to be well looked after. He had a minor ailment in the last month or so but that's now been treated.
So we're confident that he continues to be well treated. We continue to urge the Chinese authorities to expedite his matter and we continue to make those representations.
He's now, as we know, before the Chinese legal and judicial system and our urging to the Chinese authorities continues to be to deal with his matter as expeditiously as humanly possible.
But we will continue to press for access, which has been accorded strictly in accordance with the consular agreement that we have with China.
But on the most recent advice he's well but obviously he, just as we do, want the matter to be dealt with as quickly as possible.
DAVID SPEERS: All right. Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, thank you.
- Minister's Office: (02) 6277 7500
- Departmental Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555