JULIE BISHOP: I wanted to make a few comments about some events over the weekend and given that the 2 + 2 Ministerial meeting has concluded I want to take this opportunity to address these matters.
As to the tragic accident in New Zealand, the New Zealand authorities have now confirmed that two Australian citizens, residents of New South Wales, died in this accident. On behalf of the Australian Government I extend our deepest condolences and sympathies to the families and friends of those killed. We are providing consular assistance to their families but at this stage I’m not in a position to provide further details. I’ll leave that to the authorities to confirm further details surrounding that incident.
Secondly, our travel advice for Australians seeking to travel overseas has been updated to “exercise a high degree of caution” if visiting France and Belgium. I note that there is still a state of emergency in France and that Belgium has recently updated its threat alert for Brussels to the highest level - four of four levels - that is “serious threat – attack is imminent”. So on that basis the Australian Government has updated our travel advice, and I urge any Australians thinking of travelling overseas, but particularly to France and Belgium, to be mindful of the advice on our website: smartraveller.gov.au
We were also reminded this weekend that Islamic extremists and terrorist attacks can take place anywhere, and against any nationality. The siege in the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako in Mali has certainly underscored the extent of the terrorist threat throughout Africa and the Middle East. I express our condolences to the families and loved ones of those who have been killed in this incident. There are no reports of any Australians affected by this terrorist attack. While an Al Qaeda affiliate has claimed responsibility it does underscore the fact that we are dealing with a significant regional and global terrorist threat that can come in a number of forms through a number of organisations.
Australia will continue to make a significant military contribution to build the capacity of the Iraqi security forces to attack and defeat Da’esh, as it operates in Iraq and continue to provide air support for air strikes in Syria and Iraq to help disrupt and ultimately defeat Da’esh as it launches attacks against Iraq from Syria.
We had a very good discussion with our counterpart ministers from Japan about the need for there to be a united front in attacking terrorism in all its forms wherever it occurs. Both Australia and Japan support the Vienna Process which is seeking to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria so that there can be a united single front against terrorists and the Islamic extremists that are operating in that part of the world.
JOURNALIST: Minister Nakatani directly links stability in the region, in the South China Sea, particularly with the submarines, obviously it is part of his bid for Japan. How important would that be in terms of partnering with someone else in the region rather than Europe?
JULIE BISHOP: I don't intend to pre-empt the competitive evaluation process. Clearly all three tenderers will put forward a range of considerations for the Australian Government, including strategic considerations, but the process is underway. Bids must be submitted by the end of November. Then there will be a technical and expert evaluation before recommendations come before the National Security Committee. But we will obviously take a very broad view of what will be in Australia's national interests in terms of our future submarines.
JOURNALIST: Minister, the Japanese are clearly placing a great value on closer military cooperation with Australia. Are you able to characterise in more detail what your view is of a deeper relationship in the defence and security area with Japan, and what benefits there might be for Australia?
JULIE BISHOP: We have been close partners with Japan for around 70 years and the relationship has been very much built on strong economic, commercial, investment ties. In recent times Japan has made it clear that they wish to adopt a more normal defence posture and with the passage of the security reform legislation through the Diet in recent months, Japan is now in a position to make a greater international contribution to peace and security. And Australia wishes to work with Japan, as we have done in the past, but at a heightened level to ensure that we can cooperate, particularly on regional security, but even more broadly on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and peacekeeping Japan has already been a significant contributor to UN peacekeeping over the years, but now with the passage of the security reform legislation it will be in a position to make an even greater contribution.
We have a common ally in the United States. The United States has rebalanced its strategic and security efforts into the Asia-Pacific region. Japan will be an important part of that rebalance, and we intend to work closely with Japan and other nations in enhancing security and defence cooperation in the interests of peace, of security, stability, in our region.
We also spoke about enhancing our cooperation in counterterrorism, in exchanging experiences and capabilities and ideas on how to counter the threat of terrorism occurring in our region. Of course Australia has a number of foreign terrorist fighters who have left our shores and taken part in terrorist activities in the Middle East and we want to ensure that we can make this region as safe as possible and starve terrorist organisations not only of fighters, but funds emanating from our region.
JOURNALIST: Minister, how difficult has your job been as chief diplomat, over general concerns of the US over the Darwin Port deal [inaudible]? Do you [inaudible] anything further to reassure the Americans that they were kept in on it?
JULIE BISHOP: Contrary to reporting on this issue, the matter was discussed at the AUSMIN meeting in Boston in October. Minister Payne and I did discuss this matter with our counterpart ministers in October and so we have discussed this issue with the United States. We are the closest of friends and allies with the United States and if issues arise, we work through them and discuss them in a respectful and appropriate manner, as we have with this and with any other issue that may arise between Australia and the United States.
JOURNALIST: Minister, Western Australia's ramping up its efforts to secure more of the ship and submarine building work. Would you like to see WA get a bigger share of the work than it has perhaps been suggested?
JULIE BISHOP: Through the proposed White Paper on Defence, Australia will be embarking on a significant increase in the resources and assets for our defence forces and I believe that through that process, there will be significant opportunities for Australian Defence industry companies and associated companies to carry out much of that work - not in every instance but I'm sure that there'll be significant opportunities, not only in Western Australia and South Australia but in other states to be part of the significant focus on enhancing our defence capability through the purchase and build of significant defence assets. So, in short, there will be plenty of work for all states that have the capability and capacity.
JOURNALIST: Minister did the Port of Darwin come up in your discussion with the Japanese Ministers today and did they express any concerns about the sale?
JULIE BISHOP: No, it didn't. It wasn't a topic of discussion.
JOURNALIST: [Inaudible question re freedom of navigation in South China Sea]
JULIE BISHOP: Australia has made it clear that we propose to exercise our right to freedom of navigation and freedom of over flight including in relation to the South China Sea and this is particularly important for us because at least two thirds of our export items, our trade pass through the South China Sea and so we have and will continue to exercise our right to transit through the South China Sea both by sea and by air.
We've done it in the past and we'll continue to do so in accordance with international law. We urge all parties to abide by a rules-based international order that includes resolving territorial claims peacefully and respecting the rights of all nations to over flight and freedom of navigation.
JOURNALIST: Do you feel pressured by the fact that the Japanese Government is trying to conflate these issues of strategic cooperation in the South China Sea and the submarine contract and when you say the strategic considerations are in there can you give us the percentage it is, is it 50 per cent of a decision?
JULIE BISHOP: I don't feel in the least bit pressured. We have a competitive evaluation process in place so that the three nations selected to take part are able to put forward their bids and I have no doubt that all three will put forward high quality and comprehensive tenders that will require a significant technical and expert review and assessment. And then it is a matter for the National Security Committee of Cabinet and then Cabinet to make a decision that will be in Australia's national interests. So I expect all nations to be very robust in promoting the merits of their respective bids but of course there is a process in place. There's no pressure on Australian ministers in that regard.
JOURNALIST: It sounded a little bit as though the Japanese Ministers were saying Australia's agreed that China is the big problem, it is the status quo changing that's the big problem whereas the Australian line is usually we don't take sides in this. We just [inaudible] international law. Is that fair to say? Did it seem to you as though they were maybe over eager?
JULIE BISHOP: First, I should say that I didn't intend to re-run the Japanese/Australia two-plus-two in the absence of my defence colleague Marise Payne. She is currently undertaking a bilateral discussion with the Japanese Defence Minister. Otherwise I would have invited her to be here to take part in this discussion, but in relation to the South China Sea, our position has been consistent, our message has been the same throughout. We urge all claimants to exercise restraint, not to use force or take coercive action, not to escalate tensions and if there are claims, that they should be negotiated peacefully all through international tribunals including by arbitration. That has been our consistent message and we will continue to maintain that position whether it's publicly at meetings or privately in conversations with potential claimants in the South China Sea.
JOURNALIST: Minister, Parliament returns tomorrow I think. Would you like to see Tony Abbott continue to express views on what could be done in the war against Islamic State?
JULIE BISHOP: Of course, any Member of Parliament is entitled to express their views. If they have a contribution to make, that is welcome.
JOURNALIST: And what have you made of his recent contributions?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, I'm not going to run a commentary on what every member of parliament says about various matters. I wouldn't have time to focus on my priorities but of course members of parliament, and that includes Tony Abbott, are free to make assessments and make contributions through the media or otherwise to issues affecting Australia's national interest and as a former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott has a particular perspective. Of course he's entitled to that view and I encourage all members of parliament to take part in constructive, positive dialogue to resolve some of the extraordinary challenges that we face, not only, but most certainly including in the area of terrorism.
We are seeing an unprecedented terrorist threat evolving around the world and no one country has the answer. That's why we encourage discussion and cooperation and collaboration for political solutions and also the united Coalition to undertake military operations. I stress again that Australia is already undertaking a significant military contribution to the defeat of Da’esh in Iraq and Syria. We have about 780 defence personnel deployed and so we are making a very significant contribution. But we also see that military operations are not the only answer. There needs to be a political solution, particularly in Syria, and there needs to be support for the Iraqi Government who need strong governance and control of their sovereignty and control of their borders in order to be able to focus on attacking a terrorist organisation like Da’esh that claims a caliphate over large areas of Syria and Iraq. So these are very complex issues and I welcome a positive and constructive debate on them.
JOURNALIST: Minister, Australia has warships regularly in the South China Sea and air patrols, they have steered clear of the waters China is claiming as some territorial waters. Is there any possibility Australia might actually send a warship or an aircraft through those waters as the Americans have?
JULIE BISHOP: Australia will continue to conduct exercises in the South China Sea as we have in the past. I see no reason for us to change what we already do, that is we transit through the international waters, according to international law, exercising our right to freedom of navigation and in the case of our aircraft, freedom of overflight.
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