BEN FORDHAM:       Julie Bishop is our Foreign Minister, she joins us on the line. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, good afternoon to you.

JULIE BISHOP:           Good afternoon Ben, good to be with you.

BEN FORDHAM:       I don’t mean to sound like a doomsday-er but when you talk about Chinese warships and guns and rockets on our doorstep, that doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm, Foreign Minister?

JULIE BISHOP:           Regarding that report today, the Government of Vanuatu has said that there is no proposal, of which they are aware, to establish a Chinese military base on Vanuatu. I am not aware of any specifics in regard to a military offer being made to by China and the Government of Vanuatu has said that there is no proposal. I am certainly aware that Chinese vessels have visited Vanuatu. They were there last year as part of a broader visit to the region. These sorts of visits are normal for many navies around the world, including our own.

We have to remember that Vanuatu is a sovereign nation and its foreign and defence relations are a matter for Vanuatu. However, of course Australia will continue to monitor what happens in the Pacific. It is our neighbourhood. It is our region in a sense that we are the major strategic partner for many of the countries in the Pacific. We have very good relations with Vanuatu and I remain confident that we are Vanuatu’s strategic partner of choice. For example, I was in Vanuatu on Saturday with Prince Charles but I took the opportunity to inspect the reconstruction work that Australia is carrying out in response to the devastating impact of Tropical Cyclone Pam three years ago. Australia was there from the outset, supporting Vanuatu with a humanitarian response. Our Defence Force came in to support them. We had 1,700 Australia Defence Force personnel in Vanuatu, we had HMAS Tubrok, we had a C17, a c130, transport planes, we had Black Hawk helicopters. We were able to assist Vanuatu as a great friend, as a neighbour, and as a partner of choice.

BEN FORDHAM:       So it is important that we keep building on those relations. It does sound a little bit, Foreign Minister, like, and I can understand why, like we’re trying to show Vanuatu how close we are to Vanuatu and it looks like China has been doing exactly the same thing and we know that money talks. They have brought a lot of money into Vanuatu, haven’t they?

JULIE BISHOP:           It is certainly in our interests to step up our engagement with countries of the Pacific including Vanuatu and that is what we have been doing. It was set out in our 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper that we released last November - that the Pacific is one of our highest of priority and that we will step up our engagement with all of the countries of the Pacific.

In relation to China, China has been making significant contributions to the economic growth and development of countries around the world, not just in our region, but around the world. The point that we make is, while we welcome investment from other countries that support sustainable growth in the Pacific, we also have to ensure that it responds to the Pacific Governments’ priorities and doesn’t impose a heavy debt burden.

BEN FORDHAM:       I know you need to be diplomatic about these things Foreign Minister, but we can’t deny that China is trying to use its influence in the region, including in our own backyard. I mean, we saw it with Shanghai Sam Dastyari, where the former Labor Senator was even prepared to call a press conference and announce a policy that was contrary to Labor Party policy in Australia and this is because he was being leaned on by people who are influential Chinese businessmen, influential Chinese businessmen who have links with the communist regime back home. So-

JULIE BISHOP:           I don’t know that he was being leaned on, I think he was taking money, including for his own personal indebtedness. I think that was a rather extraordinarily situation. Let me make this point, China is a growing regional and global power. Its economic heft, if you like, means that it is the number one trading partner for about 120 or more countries around the world, including Australia. Commensurate with its growing economic weight, it wants to be seen as a strategic influence as well, as other nations want to be influential when it affects their national interest. We must ensure that we work with China so that its development assistance, including its infrastructure funding, supports the national interest of the countries that it is assisting. I think that is an important role for Australia to play.

For example, we are working with China on an anti-malaria program in PNG, and it is in our interests to wipe out malaria in PNG, of course, but we are using Chinese expertise with some Australian funding, working with the PNG Government. It is a three-way effort, harnessing China’s commitment and contribution to get a great outcome not only for PNG, if we can eliminate malaria, but also for Australia and other countries in the region.

BEN FORDHAM:       When we have a look at China increasing its grip in the South China Sea, and when China says no, that’s mainly for civilian purposes, do we buy that line or do we accept the fact that they are using airstrips and other military installations to prepare for whatever the future may bring?

JULIE BISHOP:           We have been very consistent and in public and in private in relation to this matter in relation to the South China Sea. There are numerous claimants over different parts of the South China Sea, about eight in all. Different nations claim different parts of the South China Sea. China has by far the largest claim. Our point is that there should be no unilateral action, there should be no militarisation, there should be no steps taken that increase tensions in the region, and that all these different maritime claims should be resolved peacefully through negotiation or resorting to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. That is what Australia did with our recent conciliation process with Timor-Leste over the Timor Sea. We sought to negotiate, we subjected ourselves to a conciliation process under UNCLOS, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and we negotiated an outcome peacefully and now we are starting a whole new chapter of positive relations with Timor-Leste as a result. That is what we want to see in the South China Sea, that all of the differences, and there are many differences in the South China Sea, in claimants’ minds, should be resolved peacefully.

JOURNALIST:             Just a couple of quick ones. I know that at the start of the interview you said that Vanuatu is denying that there’s been a proposal put them from China to set up a base there. Are you aware that the Australian Defence Force has told Chris Uhlmann at Nine News that they are aware of the plan?

JULIE BISHOP:           I am aware that an unnamed defence official said that they are aware that China has offered military engagement with Vanuatu but didn’t go into any details. That could mean that they want to continue these navy visits to Vanuatu and other parts of the Pacific. We are aware that Chinese vessels do traverse the Pacific, we are aware that they do visit other Pacific nations as other countries do around the world as well. The Pacific is a very important strategic zone. It is important for Australia and we are certainly increasing our engagement and involvement in the Pacific, in our interests and in the interests of our Pacific friends.

BEN FORDHAM:       Are we aware of any other Pacific friends who have been loaned money by China and who would now like our help with settling those debts?

JULIE BISHOP:           I am aware that there is a debt in Tonga owed to China for an infrastructure investment. You see, we provide grants. That is the usual course that we undertake. We provide grants, China provides financial facilities like loans and the like. There are different ways of providing infrastructure assistance. Australia has always provided grants because we don’t want to place debt burdens on, in some cases, vulnerable economies. What we seek to do with our grants is drive opportunities for economic growth so that these Pacific nations can be self-sustaining, that they can have a growing economy, so that they can have sustainable growth, sustainable jobs for the future.

BEN FORDHAM:       Just lastly Julie Bishop. It’s been revealed today that Peter proposed cutting the annual immigration intake by 20,000 but apparently was stopped by Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. So, I’m guessing he didn’t put the proposal to you?

JULIE BISHOP:           No, certainly not. I am not aware of that proposal. I am not aware of it from discussions that I have had as recently as today with the Prime Minister. I don’t know where this so-called proposal came from. It didn’t come to Cabinet, it didn’t come to National Security Committee – I am on both. If there was a casual discussion somewhere of course I wouldn’t be aware of it but I am certainly not aware of any formal proposal of this nature at all. The point is, the 190,000 is a ceiling, it is not a target. You can adjust your net migration figures to anything below 190,000.  

BEN FORDHAM:       Should we be having a look at a reduction considering some of the overcrowding that has been going on in some of the major cities?

JULIE BISHOP:           You have to look at the benefits of migration and of course you can adjust it according to our economic circumstances.

Our net migration figures have varied over time depending upon the demands of the Australian economy. For example, the majority of our visas are for skilled workers, skilled migration. If our economy is demanding more skilled migration then you bring them in. If our economy slows and we don’t need the same number of skilled workers, then you don’t take them. Family reunion is another is another area, and then of course, a much smaller area is humanitarian and refugee intake.

We have people coming to Australia for great benefits, the number of foreign students who come here, that drives economic growth, tourists, we want to see more tourists come here, and so our visa system, our universal visa system, is something that the Government can control.

BEN FORDHAM:       Good on you. Thank you so much for joining us this afternoon, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

JULIE BISHOP:           My pleasure. Thanks Ben.

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