JULIE BISHOP: This first-ever meeting of ASEAN leaders, the 10 nations of South East Asia, is an extremely important one, not just symbolically, as it is the first time the ASEAN leaders will have met here in Australia with our Prime Minister, but also, it will lead to some positive outcomes in terms of more trade and investment, because we have a CEO business forum and a women in business forum, but also greater cooperation in areas such as countering terrorism, transnational crime, and maritime challenges. To have 65 school students gather to talk about ASEAN was also an important event because it is bringing the significance of our region closer to the Australian people.
Also, overnight, we learned that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be standing down and he will be replaced by the Director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo. In the 14 months that Rex Tillerson was the Secretary of State I worked very closely with him as we pursued opportunities and met challenges facing our region and indeed, the globe. At last count I think I had about a dozen formal meetings with him over that time and, of course, met him on the side of many multilateral and regional forums that we both attended. We had a very positive working relationship. Indeed, at my last formal meeting with him in Kuwait we discussed a range of issues, including Australia's work with the coalition in defeating terrorism in Iraq and Syria, our work in Afghanistan, which is ongoing. And, the joint effort of Australia and the United States with the Philippines to defeat the ISIS inspired insurgents in the southern Philippines.
I also worked closely with him in relation to North Korea and his maximum pressure campaign on North Korea, which ensured that there was maximum diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea to bring it back to the negotiating table. And we now have news that President Trump and Kim Jong-un will meet at some point to commence that dialogue. So, while I work very productively with Rex Tillerson and I thank him for his relationship and partnership with Australia, he was here in Sydney last year for the annual Australia-US Ministerial Forum, I certainly look forward to working with Mike Pompeo, whom I met with in Washington last September and I believe that we will have a very positive working relationship with Mike Pompeo. I understand that the Senate confirmation hearings will take place in April and in the meantime we will continue to work closely with the Deputy Secretary John Sullivan and the State Department officials.
JOURNALIST: Minister, were you given a heads up that this was going to occur?
JULIE BISHOP: I was contacted formally last evening about the matter, yes.
JOURNALIST: So before it went up on Twitter?
JULIE BISHOP: Yes.
JOURNALIST: So you found out before Rex Tillerson found out?
JULIE BISHOP: I think at about the same time.
JOURNALIST: What was your reaction to the news that he was sacked?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, the United States is a significant and powerful partner for many countries around the world and Australia, fortunately, has a deep and close connection with the United States. They are second largest trading partner, our largest source of foreign direct investment, our strongest security and defence ally. The connections between the US Administration and the Australian Government are very deep and enduring, whomever is in the Lodge, whomever is in the White House. They go back decades, and so, the connections continue and we will work very closely with whomever is Secretary of State within the Trump Administration.
JOURNALIST: Do you have any sympathy for him in the way he was let go via Twitter?
JULIE BISHOP: That is a matter for the President and his Cabinet Ministers. My point is that we had a very good working relationship with Rex Tillerson and I'm confident that will continue under Mike Pompeo. We also know the CIA Director-Designate Gina Haspel, and we have worked closely with her on intelligence matters, of course, as part of the Five Eyes community. So, I believe there will be a seamless transition to a new Secretary of State, a new Director of the CIA, and Australia will continue to pursue our national interest in working closely with United States Administration.
JOURNALIST: How hard is it when foreign counterparts lose their jobs like this; is it difficult to start building a relationship again?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, it depends very much on the relationship between the two countries and, in the case of the United States and Australia, they are our closest defence and strategic partner, one of our closest economic partners. The relationship goes back decades. We have been working particularly hard to ensure that we have deep connections within the White House Administration and so I know the new Secretary of State-Designate, I have met with Mike Pompeo, and I know that our people know very well Gina Haspel, the new CIA Director. So, I am hoping there will be a seamless transition. So, it depends very much on the nature of the relationship that Australia has with that particular country and In the case of the United States they are deep and enduring connections.
JOURNALIST: Minister, do you expect any change in stance towards the region from Mr Pompeo.
JULIE BISHOP: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in that role, had developed a Southeast Asian strategy and I understand that that was a whole of Administration strategy. So, I'm looking forward to the new Secretary of State continuing with deep engagement in our region. If there are any changes to US foreign policy obviously that is a matter for the United States, but, I am confident that our partnership, working together in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, the work we have done in Southeast Asia, as well as the work we will continue to do in relation to North Korea, will continue.
JOURNALIST: Minister, does Australia support the UK issuing sanctions against Russia over the attempted murder of a former Russian double agent? Have you been briefed by UK authorities?
JULIE BISHOP: We most certainly have been briefed by the United Kingdom. As you know, we are very close security and intelligence partners. I have been in contact with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. We support, in the strongest possible terms, the full investigation by the British authorities of this nerve gas attack. We understand that the substance used in this attempted assassination was a military grade nerve gas that has been developed in the past by Russia. And, the United Kingdom have called upon Russia to explain whether they were involved in this attack or, indeed, how it is that military grade product such as this could find its way into the hands of others. So, Russia has an explanation that it must give.
Likewise, we support calls by the United Kingdom to hold an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, because this attack is the use of chemical weapons in a civilian environment, and Australia condemns, absolutely, any use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere. Also, this week Australia will be making our concerns known at a meeting of the Organisation for the Prohibition against Chemical Weapons. This is an organisation under the auspices of the UN that is being convened this week, and Australia, as a member, will make our concerns known. As to the question of sanctions, Australia already has sanctions on Russia in relation to its breach of Ukraine sovereignty; its annexation of Crimea, of course the relationship between Australia and Russia is strained over the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17. So, we already have sanctions on Russia and of course we will consider any further appropriate response once the investigation has been concluded, or indeed if the UN Security Council were to take action.
JOURNALIST: How satisfied are you with security leading up to ASEAN?
JULIE BISHOP: I am very confident that the preparations for ASEAN will be as thorough as possible. The state and federal police are working closely together. Australia has hosted a number of large summits in the past. We have had the G20 here, we have had the Sydney Olympics, where we had large numbers of people in Sydney, and I am confident that the security arrangements will be appropriate.
JOURNALIST: Minister, Vietnam has reportedly called for closer defence ties with Australia; does this risk aggravating the relationship with China in the South China Sea?
JULIE BISHOP: This is very welcome news and the Prime Minister will be meeting with Prime Minister Phuc on Thursday, and we hope that we will be able to deepen our connection with Vietnam. Not only is Vietnam an important member of ASEAN, it is also an important partner for Australia in its own right. Our trade and investment ties are increasing, our people-to-people links are increasing, and it is only natural that we should deepen our defence ties. And the United States, our close security and defence ally, has recently been deepening their engagement with Vietnam. Indeed, a US aircraft carrier was in Vietnam recently, which is an historic first. And, we certainly welcome closer cooperation with Vietnam on defence exercises, defence engagement, and I think that will be a positive step for greater security and stability in our region.
JOURNALIST: Minister, one last question the Philippines military say so-called Islamic State has announced an emir in South East Asia to extend its influence, does Australia need to boost its military presence in the region?
JULIE BISHOP: Most certainly Australia has been working very closely with the Philippines to counter these ISIS inspired insurgents and militants. As we have more success in the Middle East in driving ISIS out of Iraq and hopefully Syria, there is the concern that returning foreign fighters will come back to our region, including in the Philippines. So we are already working very closely with the Philippines Government, with the Philippines military, to provide whatever support we can, along with Indonesia, Malaysia, and other countries in the region, and the United States, to bolster the Philippine Defence Force's capacity to counter these terrorist groups, these insurgents and militants who have carried out attacks on civilians in the past. So, Australia will do what we can to work with the Philippines, to support them in their efforts to counter terrorism.
JOURNALIST: Minister have you contacted Mr Pompeo yet today to congratulate him on his role?
JULIE BISHOP: Not directly because he has not yet been confirmed and the confirmation process will take place in April, as I understand it. So our embassy is in touch with the State Department to work out the most appropriate time for me to make formal contact, so that is under way. Thank you.
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