JULIE BISHOP Today Minister Johnston and I are concluding our attendance at the NATO Summit here in Wales. This has been a most productive and significant meeting for us. The focus of the meeting was on Afghanistan and the transition from the NATO-led international force through to an Afghan-led force to maintain the safety and stability and security of Afghanistan.
Australia was invited to become an enhanced partner of NATO and this is indeed an honour that we were happy to accept. It recognises the high-level of capability that Australia has demonstrated over the last 10 years in Afghanistan but it provides us with the opportunity to remain engaged at a high level with NATO – the most powerful, political and military alliance in the world. It also means that we can maintain interoperability with NATO forces and there will be a level of information sharing and cooperation that will be of benefit to Australia.
Other issues that dominated discussions included Ukraine and Russia’s behaviour in relation to Ukraine. And it’s fair to say that the NATO nations hardened in their resolve to hold Russia to a ceasefire and to insist that Russia remove its troops and weapons and assets from Ukraine. There was also discussion of further sanctions.
The third issues that dominated discussions, not only the formal meetings, but most certainly the bilateral meetings that we have taken part in, was the sudden and bloody emergence of ISIL as a terrorist organisation that not only has an impact in the Middle East in Syria, Iraq and beyond, but also globally.
At a meeting this morning of representatives, the Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers of a number of countries who are committed to combatting ISIL, I spoke of the number of foreign fighters that are leaving Australia to join ISIL and carry out brutal, bloody terrorist activities in Syria and Iraq. I also spoke of the concerns in our region with countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and China acknowledging that they have foreign fighters amongst their citizens who are travelling to the Middle East to take part in the conflict on the ground.
We spoke of the options that likeminded countries can take to combat the foreign fighter phenomenon but also to combat the scourge of ISIL in Iraq. This includes working closely with an inclusive Iraqi Government, the humanitarian effort that is required to provide relief to those who are under attack, as well as supporting a US-led Coalition that will seek to tackle ISIL head on. And the US air strikes have had some significant impact but there is more that needs to be done to ensure that ISIL doesn’t continue to grow and spread its poison beyond the region.
There was a high-level of cooperation between a number of countries that more can be done. A number of meetings are scheduled for the coming weeks including in the lead up to the United Nations General Assembly Leaders’ Week where President Obama will convene a summit to focus specifically on the question of foreign fighters and how to tackle ISIL in Iraq.
The meetings that we held in the margins of the NATO Summit have been very productive from Australia’s point of view – deepening and broadening our relationships with a number of significant countries. Both Minister Johnston and I met with our counterpart Foreign and Defence Ministers from a number of countries, particularly among the NATO membership, although there are about 60 countries represented here today.
So it has been a very productive couple of days but there is far more to be done first in relation to Australia’s ongoing commitment to support state security and stability in Afghanistan, secondly in relation to Russian aggression in Ukraine and third the scourge of ISIL and the steps that can be taken to combat ISIL and its ideology.
DAVID JOHNSTON Well Julie you’ve said it all. I just want to say that these two days have been extremely productive and coming all the way from Australia to engage with likeminded countries on present challenges has been a very useful experience.
NATO has been a tremendous force for strong leadership in answering the various strategic challenges that have confronted peace loving nations. We are an enhanced partner. This is a very significant thing for Australia. It means that there are only five enhanced partners and we are one of them. This is a great compliment to the way that we conduct our business in a Defence sense and I think that this has been a most successful summit and we have engaged at a very high level, obviously Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel and Secretary Hammond and Secretory Fallon from the UK, very successful all up as Julie has pointed out. I don’t think there’s much more that I can say.
JULIE BISHOP Any questions?
JOURNALIST How much more will Australia contribute to the effort against ISIL and can you rule out the possibility of Australian aircraft being used in an offensive capacity against ISIL?
JULIE BISHOP At the meeting this morning we discussed a range of options as to how the ISIL threat can be eliminated and a number of countries put forward ideas. Clearly there will have to be a coordinated approach with a number of nations who have a stake in the elimination of the ISIL ideology. We talked about a range of ways that countries can assist a US coordinated approach.
Clearly there is a humanitarian aspect to it and Australia has already been engaged in air drops to Mount Sinjar and Amerlie so that those citizens are able to gain that assistance. Australia has already been involved in supplying ammunitions and weapons to Peshmerga so they can defend themselves.
The countries that have expressed a willingness to tackle ISIL head-on have also looked at what more can be done in terms of air strikes and Australia will respond when a formal request is made. The red line is combat troops on the ground. There was no interest from any country present to commit combat troops but there is much that can be done to seek to combat ISIL in other ways.
Australia is prepared to play its part in combatting ISIL because it is a direct domestic security threat to Australia. The number of hardened home grown terrorists who could potentially return to Australia after fighting in Iraq is significant. This is a far greater threat than we faced after Afghanistan when a number of fighters who’d been radicalised and who’d undertaken terrorist activities in Afghanistan returned to Australia and sought to carry out terrorist activities in our own country. The number of Australians experienced in terrorist activities is significantly greater so we’re prepared to play our part in defeating this scourge.
JOURNALIST Can I just go back to that..
JULIE BISHOP We haven’t had a formal request, so we would consider a formal request, we would certainly weigh the options, we would weigh the risks. There must be a clear and proportionate role for Australia. There would have to be a humanitarian objective and there would have to be a realistic assessment of what resources and assets would be required and what timeframe. So they’re details we haven’t yet had to confront but we’ll certainly consider any formal request should it be made.
JOURNALIST When you say there has to be a humanitarian objective does that mean you’re ruling out simply striking against ISIL, there has to be saving some village or something?
JULIE BISHOP Well ISIL is attacking innocent civilians throughout Iraq, Syria and beyond so there is a humanitarian element to this of course, so that’s the point we’re making.
JOURNALIST So just as a follow-up to that - obviously when the formal request came through you want to be ready for it. Does that mean that you’re preparing contingency plans, that you’re looking at where your forces are so you will be when and if the request comes?
DAVID JOHNSTON Contingency planning has been underway from a very early point in anticipation of a number of countries wanting to see contributions. Now we’re still in an extremely early stage. The planning is something that the Australian Defence Force would naturally move to at an early stage and of course our readiness levels are up but let me say that we are some distance, some distance from specific requests for an operation set out and designed such that the Government can make a firm consideration. But naturally, naturally in the face of this tantamount genocide from this organisation, the Australian Defence Force starts to be ready.
JOURNALIST The [inaudible] said yesterday that the Super Hornet squadrons would be involved. The Australian Government [inaudible]. Is that what we would be sending? And have you offered them to the US?
DAVID JOHNSTON There’s a number of very good capabilities that the Australian Defence Force can contribute to a combined coalition. Let’s see what the combined coalition wants to do, let’s see who’s in the coalition, let’s see the inclusiveness of the Government in Baghdad and let’s consult with our friends and our allies, particularly the United States as to the proper way forward before we begin speculation as to what particular platforms Australia will contribute.
Now you all know there’s a number of very strong capabilities we have so we’re just going to do that preliminary work to engage our friends and allies so that the plan has, as Julie has pointed out, clear objectives to find feasible objectives that we can very readily carry out credibly and successfully with some clear duration of the operation and some definition of what success actually looks like.
JOURNALIST Minister Johnston, how quickly could you get aircraft on the ground – in the air as soon as you’re asked?
DAVID JOHNSTON Look I’m not going to talk about operational matters, the movement of platforms around. These are things that we will look at and consider in due course, we’ll make announcements appropriately but we’re certainly not going to set out what the logistical timeframes for these things are.
Now this is a very serious matter of committing young Australians to deal with an extremely dangerous organisation so we will announce matters as and when they arise. As I said we’re some distance from actual commitment but we need to see the plan, we need to see who’s in the plan. We need to understand the length and the breadth of the plan.
JOURNALIST Will you be looking for more money from the Budget in order to fund efforts?
DAVID JOHNSTON That’s a matter the Government will consider in due course once we have an understanding of what the level of commitment might be.
JOURNALIST You’ve talked about combined forces and likeminded nations. Who this morning said that they could be part of this coalition?
JULIE BISHOP There were a number of nations present this morning. The United States had invited representatives of a number of countries, the Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers. The meeting was hosted by Secretaries John Kerry and Chuck Hagel and Australia was there because we are keen to play our part in ensuring that this heightened terrorist risk to Australia can be tackled head on. There were a number of other countries there including countries from the region but I won’t go into the details of it until more information as to who has committed what is able to be made public. But it was quite clear that many nations feel very deeply and very concerned about the serious nature of the threat that ISIL poses and are committed to ensuring that we can do all we can to keep our respective nations safe.
This is not an issue isolated to Syria and Iraq. This is a threat that goes way beyond the region and in fact has ramifications and implications for countries as far away as Australia and other countries in South East Asia. But there was a level of willingness for countries to form a coalition. It will happen over the coming period of time and Australia was there to get as much information as we can so that we can inform our National Security Committee and it can have all the facts that are needed before it, in order to make a decision.
JOURNALIST What would you say to Australians that are worried that we could get caught in a long and bloody campaign that may end up being a commitment for years to come?
JULIE BISHOP This is why Australia was present at the meeting convened this morning so that we can gauge the level of support for a coordinated coalition, that we can gain information and ideas as to the type of response that is being contemplated and that we’re in a position to weigh the risks. Of course the bigger risk could well be doing nothing and enabling ISIS to spread its poison, its ideology way beyond Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and that’s the concern that Australia faces.
We’re taking it very seriously, as you know, we’re increasing counterterrorism measures in our country to disrupt the flow of foreign fighters to and from Australia, to provide greater capability to our intelligence forces, our intelligence agencies, our enforcement agencies and the Federal Police and that we’re also committed to reaching out to communities in Australia to ensure that moderate Muslim voices are heard and that they can take steps to help Australia deal with this foreign fighter issue.
JOURNALIST Ministers, on Ukraine, there’s a bit of confusion possibly just in my own mind about how and where we’re offering assistance and training, being part of this mission to assist Ukraine’s military and humanitarian efforts. Can you outline what we’re doing and where we’re doing it?
JULIE BISHOP Well the situation in Ukraine is volatile and changing constantly. There is talk of a ceasefire and if that ceasefire were to come to pass then there may well be consequences that means there will be no need for further military action in Ukraine. If the ceasefire doesn’t come to pass there could well be an outcome that means Ukraine is again facing a significant military threat from Russia so we are reviewing the situation very closely.
We are talking with our friends, including in Ukrainian Government. I spoke to Foreign Minister Klimkin and President Poroshenko at length last night about the chances of a ceasefire, not only being announced but holding for a period of time. So if Ukraine requested support we would give it consideration and could assist in ways such as training, advising, assisting but this very much depends on what happens over the next few days and negotiations between President Putin and President Poroshenko.
JOURNALIST Minister if there is a peaceful [inaudible], fighting does stop will you be sending people into Eastern Ukraine again to the crash site for further investigation?
JULIE BISHOP We still have Australian Federal Police in Kiev. We have a presence there. As the Prime Minister announced this week we will be having a more permanent embassy, albeit it will have to be temporary one for the time being, but we will be having a more permanent presence in Kiev and that could include revisiting the crash site if that is required.
There is an interim report that will be handed down on Tuesday. I’ve been informed by Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands that the Dutch investigation authorities will be handing down an interim report on Tuesday so much of what happens thereafter will depend upon the findings and any recommendations in that report.
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