FRAN KELLY: The Syrian Government and its allies, Russia and Iran, have denied any involvement in the chemical weapon attack on Douma. Indeed, Russia says there is no evidence it even happened. Julie Bishop is our Foreign Minister. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.
JULIE BISHOP: Thanks Fran, good to be with you.
FRAN KELLY: Donald Trump says he'll make a decision in the next 24 to 48 hours on military retaliation to this chemical attack. He said: "It's going to be very tough". Would Australia support a military response to what happened in Douma?
JULIE BISHOP: President Trump has indicated that the United States will decide a response shortly. He's indicated that no option will be ruled out, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has also claimed that. There has also been contact between French President Macron and President Trump saying that they would have a strong joint response. Australia will obviously take into account any request from the United States, and our allies in relation to this matter. The estimated death tolls vary from 40 to 80 according to the source and the timing of reports. Australia condemns the use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances - it's utterly reprehensible. We will certainly assess the details as they come to hand. We will certainly assess any request to be involved, but the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons has started an investigation based on reports but there's been no ground based assessment started yet, so more information is required.
FRAN KELLY: Okay, but in terms of assessing any request, the British Prime Minister Theresa May says: "We are working with our allies on any action that is necessary". Is anyone working with Australia? Is Australia talking to anyone yet? And is military action being considered?
JULIE BISHOP: Australia is always in contact with our allies in relation to these matters. Australia has been engaged in the conflict in Iraq and Syria to the extent that we were focusing our efforts on destroying the terror organisation ISIS.
FRAN KELLY: So are we engaged in talks on military action in response?
JULIE BISHOP: I don't go into details on that kind of matter but I can assure you we are in contact with our allies and partners on a range of issues, and we will assess any request should it be made.
FRAN KELLY: What degree of response do you think is necessary or is appropriate? Because almost exactly 12 months ago the US President ordered a strike by 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles hit the Al Shayrat airfield, the suspected source of a similar gas attack last year. Since then nothing seems to have changed. Women, children, civilians still being choked to death by poison gas despite that so-called line being crossed yet again. Would a limited air strike round like that achieve anything or is it time to do something more adamant to go after Assad's air capabilities?
JULIE BISHOP: Our advice was that the Syrian regime was responsible for this latest attack and it does have a history of using chemical weapons. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the UN Joint Investigative Mechanism found in October 2017 that the Syrian regime was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun attack, and so it does have a history of this. Of course Syria and Russia have blamed Israel for this, and there is a conflict in the reports. That's why we are waiting for assessments and further contact with our allies and partners in relation to a response.
FRAN KELLY: How long will we wait? I mean, Russia says it's got people on the ground and nothing happened, there's no evidence of any chemical attack. Do you believe that?
JULIE BISHOP: No I don't.
FRAN KELLY: So you believe Syria and Russia were involved in this attack?
JULIE BISHOP: Our advice is that the Syrian regime was responsible. Russia is backing the Syrian regime and the Syrian regime has been found to have a history of using chemical weapons against its own people.
FRAN KELLY: So, and do you believe Russia, as Donald Trump has said, that Russia and Iran could also be responsible and everybody is going to pay a price. Do you think if there is some action in retaliation it will be not just against Syria but also against Russia and Iran?
JULIE BISHOP: Well in Syria, Israel is already targeting Iranian weapons transfers to Hezbollah, so there are already attacks on others. This is a civil war of great complexity and there are a number of players involved - Russia, Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, and then the United States and its allies and partners trying to establish some kind of order in this extraordinarily complex and challenging environment.
FRAN KELLY: And does Israel bombing, sending missiles into an airfield there that has Iranian missiles within it, does that help restore some kind of order?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, Israel is seeking to defend itself. Iran has, in the past, made threats against Israel. Israel is responding in targeting Iranian weapons that are being transferred to Hezbollah.
FRAN KELLY: The UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is warning the Syrian war could spiral into a wider conflict. Do you believe we are at that point?
JULIE BISHOP: That has always been a concern of ours, that the Syrian conflict, if not able to be resolved, could broaden. It is a catastrophe. The humanitarian crisis has been unprecedented in its scale and Australia has been calling for a political solution for some time now, but the civil war seems to be broadening.
FRAN KELLY: The UN Security Council is holding an emergency meeting as we speak to discuss Syria. Russia was the country which was supposed to guarantee the removal of all chemical weapons from Syria under the deal struck by the Obama administration. Instead, it's used its veto power on the Security Council to stop the OPCW having an inspection unit linked. There was a UN OPCW investigation unit that actually could attribute responsibility. Russia has used its veto power on the Council to end that. Is the veto power of the UN Security Council rendering it useless?
JULIE BISHOP: It is of great concern that Russia would choose this opportunity to veto a strong statement or call for action. To that extent, I agree with the US State Department and the US Administration that says Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the targeting of countless Syrians with chemical weapons, because Russia, through the UN Security Council, has the ability to get a unanimous outcome from the UN Security Council so that action could be taken. By using its veto – its preventing that action being taken to stop the conflict in Syria.
FRAN KELLY: Julie Bishop, if I can come closer to home, within your portfolio - we learned today that China hopes and plans to build a permanent military presence in Vanuatu. It's China's pathway into the Pacific, it's called - funding this new wharf, which has military capacity on Espirito Santo. What level of concern is this Chinese activity causing in Canberra, and I guess in Washington?
JULIE BISHOP: Well first, I'm not aware of a military offer being made by China to Vanuatu.
FRAN KELLY: A capability
JULIE BISHOP: The government of Vanuatu has said that there is no such proposal. It is a fact that China is engaging in developing infrastructure and investment activity in places around the world, but to date there is only one military base that China has built and that's Djibouti in Northern Africa. I'm aware that China is more engaged in the Pacific. Chinese vessels visited Vanuatu last year as part of a broader visit to the region but these sorts of visits are normal for many navies around the world. We must remember that Vanuatu is a sovereign nation and its foreign and defence relations are a matter for Vanuatu. But I have been there recently, probably my fourth visit to Vanuatu since I became Foreign Minister. We have very good relationships with Vanuatu, and I remain confident that Australia is Vanuatu's strategic partner of choice.
FRAN KELLY: One analyst has written today that if China is able to set up some kind of permanent base in the Pacific, in Vanuatu, this would represent a failure of Australian security policy, which for years now has been predicated on not allowing any other country to project force and influence against the mainland from the South Pacific. Would you see this as a failure? Are you concerned?
JULIE BISHOP: As we set out in the Foreign Policy White Paper last November, Australia has stepped up its engagement with countries of the Pacific, including Vanuatu, and our strategic and economic and development engagement in the Pacific is one of our highest foreign policy priorities.
FRAN KELLY: So are you concerned at the suggestion that China is trying to make, not just get influence, but also set up some kind of base, military base?
JULIE BISHOP: We are interested in working closely with China in development activity in the Pacific. Indeed, we are already partnering with China on a anti-malaria program in Papua New Guinea. We need more infrastructure spending in the Pacific. The question is how it is invested in the terms of that investment and that's why we believe the appropriate course is to work closely with China and indeed partner with China to ensure that investment in the Pacific is in the interests of the Pacific nations.
FRAN KELLY: Could I just ask you finally about leadership? Barnaby Joyce said yesterday Malcolm Turnbull should: "Do the honourable thing and step down before Christmas if he can't lift the Governments fortunes". Is that helpful to put a deadline on it, and is it realistic? Would you agree with that?
JULIE BISHOP: No I don't agree with Barnaby Joyce. The Prime Minister will lead us to the next election.
FRAN KELLY: Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg – they've all expressed in the last 24 hours that they have leadership ambitions. Would you be nominating for the job if it did come up? If Christmas came around and Malcolm Turnbull said 'fair enough', would you put your hand up?
JULIE BISHOP: Fran, these are all hypotheticals. Presumably my colleagues are speaking about their future ambitions. They have all said that Malcolm Turnbull will lead us to the next election so I think we need to look at their comments in that context.
FRAN KELLY: But would you like the job if it became vacant? If?
JULIE BISHOP: I am focused on the roles I have. I have been elected by my colleagues to be the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party. I am Australia's Foreign Minister. My priority is to focus on the jobs and the responsibilities I have now.
FRAN KELLY: Julie Bishop, thank you very much for joining us.
JULIE BISHOP: Thank you.
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