JOURNALIST Thanks for your time Foreign Minister. We know it’s been a busy trip. When it comes to these reports about the missiles in the South China Sea on one of these islands, does Australia accept the word of the US, that this is the case that these reports are now confirmed?
JULIE BISHOP I have raised the issue of the surface-to-air missile reports with the Chinese at the highest levels and they have not conceded that the reports are correct and so Australia will of course carry out our own means of verifying the status of these reports on surface-to-air missiles.
The issue of the South China Sea came up in each of the high-level discussions that I have had here in Beijing with the Foreign Minister Wang Yi, with State Councillor Yang and with other officials. We agreed to disagree on a range of issues related to the South China Sea, but Australia’s position has been consistent both publicly and privately. We don’t take sides on the varying and competing claims over territory and boundaries, but we urge all parties to exercise restraint and to settle their disputes peacefully, and to de-escalate tensions, not act in a way that would escalate tensions and lead to potential miscalculation.
JOURNALIST Because one thing you said a lot on this trip and indeed you said in Tokyo before coming here is that you wanted President Xi to stick by his word not to militarise these islands. Is it fair to say that if there are missiles being placed there then that is militarising the islands?
JULIE BISHOP President Xi said in Washington that China did not intend to militarise the islands and I believe the international community can take that at face value - that is China’s intention. So therefore, any act that could be seen as militarisation will of course raise concerns and raise tensions. That is why…
JOURNALIST So would a missile placement be that act? It seems…
JULIE BISHOP Well I’m not going to buy into this until there’s been verification that would satisfy Australia. Of course I’m in Beijing and I’ll be heading home this evening so this is a matter I will discuss with our intelligence and foreign policy experts.
We have raised the issue with China, but of course my visit here has been about far more than just the South China Sea. We have been discussing our enhanced level of economic and strategic cooperation. Indeed, at all the meetings I’ve attended the consensus with the Chinese side has been that the Australia-China relationship has never been stronger or closer. So we are able to raise issues where we don’t agree, as well as focus on the achievements and milestones of this most special of relationships.
JOURNALIST And I know you’ve spoken a lot about the productive meetings. I will get onto trade a little bit later, but just when it comes to the South China Sea, Labor has said that Australia should conduct freedom of navigation exercises, unannounced ones, says Stephen Conroy. This should be part of our response to this latest development. What’s your response to that?
JULIE BISHOP I like to speak from a position of informed analysis, not from ignorance. The fact is we do conduct transit through the South China Sea, we do conduct trips through that part of the world. We do embrace freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, in accordance with international law. That’s what Australia already does.
JOURNALIST What do you say though, that there should be unannounced ones and that should be the response to that?
JULIE BISHOP We already transit the South China Sea. The majority of our trade goes through that area, we have defence vessels in the region, they already conduct freedom of navigation operations. Our planes go through the South China Sea. That is what already occurs in accordance with international law, but Australia is not going to add to tensions in the region. We’re calling for calm, we’re calling for all parties to show restraint and exercise restraint.
JOURNALIST It’s obviously always a bit of a balancing act, the China and Japan dynamic, if you like. I was interested in what you said earlier in the trip that you ruled out an alliance with Japan, a formal alliance. Is that forever and why is that, what are the reasons behind not considering that?
JULIE BISHOP Australia only has one alliance, apart from our relationship with New Zealand. We only have one alliance and that’s with the United States. That was entered into in 1951for various specific reasons. There is no need for us to sign formal treaty alliances with countries when we can have comprehensive or special strategic partnerships that serve our common interests, which serve our national interests.
JOURNALIST On Japan, [there is] $66 billion of Japanese investment in Australia. That’s how much there is and there are only $550 million going the other way. How do you help address that imbalance?
JULIE BISHOP In relation to investment by Japan?
JOURNALIST How can the free trade deal that’s been signed, how will that open up Australian investment in Japan? $66 billion, as I said, has been invested by Japan in Australia but only $550 million goes the other way.
JULIE BISHOP The free trade agreements that we’ve entered into with South Korea, with China and with Japan are all about enhancing two-way flows of trade and investment. So these are unprecedented opportunities for Australian businesses and investors to invest in the North Asian giant economies, but also to encourage more investment in Australia. That’s precisely what these free trade agreements are designed to do. They are to enhance open and to liberalise the trade and investment between the destination country and Australia.
JOURNALIST Just another couple of quick ones, I know you’re in a hurry. The UN Secretary General position, there’s been a lot of talk about Kevin Rudd maybe putting up his hand. Do you think he’s got the temperament for the job [inaudible]?
JULIE BISHOP My position has consistently been that we will wait to see who puts their hand up, who formally nominates. I’m not going to speculate on who may or may not be a candidate because that would be wasting your time, and perhaps mine. So what I’m focusing on is who actually nominates, and when the nominations are known then I’ll take a submission to cabinet and the cabinet will decide if Australia supports a particular candidate or we don’t.
JOURNALIST We’ll cross that bridge, I guess, when we come to it. The other position that Australia is looking for is the UN Human Rights Council seat. Minister, do you think the public war of words between Gillian Triggs and some members of your government, I know that’s in the past now, but could that hurt the bid in the future?
JULIE BISHOP I don’t believe so. In fact, Australia’s track record on human rights matters and our advocacy is well-regarded around the world. Australia will be advocating the abolition of the death penalty. We will be advocating gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. We will be advocating good governance and democratic institutions and the embrace of freedom. So I think Australia has a very good chance. We are not taking it for granted. We are working very hard to win support from other countries.
The bid will be from the period of 2018-2020. That’s why we have asked Philip Ruddock to be a special envoy, to meet with countries and to seek their support. I think it’s important for countries like Australia that does have a strong track record in embracing the rule of law, a commitment to the international rules-based order, to democratic institutions, to good governance, that we should be on the Human Rights Council and have our voice heard.
JOURNALIST Julie Bishop, Foreign Minister, I know you’re very busy. Thanks for your time today.
JULIE BISHOP My pleasure.
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