JULIE BISHOP: In relation to the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria, overnight Australia has co-sponsored a United States UN Security resolution calling for the establishment of a new UN investigative mechanism to assess this chemical weapons attack. Russia vetoed this resolution. We urge Russia not to stand in the way of an investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Australia condemns the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere. We have advised the Russian Ambassador in Canberra yesterday that we expect Russia to fulfil its responsibilities as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, to not shield the Syrian regime from an investigation into the use of chemical weapons which has killed a number of civilians. We will continue to work with other countries to ensure that this chemical weapons attack is investigated. This new UN mechanism would have supported the efforts of the Organisation for the Prohibition Against Chemical Weapons to undertake its work. We urge a political solution to the conflict in Syria, but in the meantime, we must take action to ensure that there is a halt to any use of chemical weapons in Syria.
JOURNALIST: Now that Russia has vetoed further investigation into the chemical weapons, should a campaign of US-led airstrikes start?
JULIE BISHOP: The United States has been considering its response at present and I know it is in contact with other allies in relation to it. The United States has been working with France and Great Britain who are both also members of the Security Council. On the last occasion that the Assad regime was responsible for the deployment of chemical weapons against civilians, the independent UN investigative mechanism and the Organisation for the Prohibition Against Chemical Weapons found that the Assad regime was responsible for those chemical attacks that killed around 90 people. At that time the United States did take action and undertook military strikes against the Syrian airfield. We supported that action, it was calibrated, it was targeted and it was proportionate.
JOURNALIST: Al Jazeera is reporting this morning that US planes with bombs aboard are heading over Syria now, are you aware of that?
JULIE BISHOP: I’m not going to comment on US military operations but if the United States does carry out an airstrike in response to this illegal use of chemical weapons against citizens, Australia will support any action that is targeted, calibrated and proportionate.
JOURNALIST: Are you encouraged by Xi Jinping’s pledge for openness and does it ease fears of a trade war?
JULIE BISHOP: We were pleased to hear President Xi Jinping speak 12 months ago at the Davos Forum when he supported greater trade and investment openness. His speech overnight has taken that further and we welcome his specific commitment to open the Chinese economy in areas such as manufacturing and his commitment to more open trade and investment. Australia will certainly continue to work closely with China and other countries as we engage in open trade and investment. It is to the benefit of all countries and we certainly welcome the President’s comments.
JOURNALIST: Why were you so unfazed about the concept of Chinese militarisation in the Pacific yesterday when the Prime Minister felt the need to publicly denounce it. Is there a difference of view within the Government about Chinese interests in the Pacific with other nations?
JULIE BISHOP: Not at all. I was asked specifically whether there was a Chinese proposal to build a military base in Vanuatu. I have been assured by the Vanuatu Government that there was no such proposal. Subsequently, the Vanuatu Foreign Minister has confirmed there was no such proposal. The Chinese Government has said there was no such proposal so I was responding to those claims. The Prime Minister was making an entirely different point. He was saying that Australia is very concerned to ensure that there is peace and stability in our region and that Australia remains the natural partner of choice when it comes to security matters for Pacific island nations.
JOURNALIST: Does China’s control of debt and economic infrastructure in Vanuatu open the way for creeping and expanding militarisation over the country?
JULIE BISHOP: Australia is concerned to ensure that all development assistance in the Pacific is enhancing their productivity, is building stronger economics and stronger societies. We don’t want to see any development assistance turning into a burden on vulnerable economies. We work with all development partners in the Pacific to ensure that their investment is for the benefit of those nations. We work with China on development assistance into PNG, but our overriding message is that we welcome infrastructure investment in the Pacific but we want to ensure that vulnerable economies are not burdened by debt that they cannot repay.
JOURNALIST: Yesterday you said a cut to immigration suggested by Peter Dutton was never taken to the Cabinet. Was it ever discussed among Cabinet colleagues?
JULIE BISHOP: I was asked whether there was a Cabinet leak and I said that there was not because it was never taken to Cabinet. I am not aware of any such proposal, it was never discussed with me, it was not discussed in the National Security Committee or the Expenditure Review Committee. I don’t know what people talk about amongst themselves but I was asked about a Cabinet leak and so I can categorically deny that there had been one.
JOURNALIST: It’s come out this morning that Emmanuel Macron is coming to Australia next month, what will come out of this visit?
JULIE BISHOP: We are delighted to welcome President Macron to Australia. We have a very deep connection with France already. This is an opportunity for us to further deepen our economic ties and security ties, the defence industry in particular. We are working very closely with France on the submarine project but there are other opportunities. I am hoping to meet with the President along with the Prime Minister and other Ministers and we will talk about ways we can enhance our relationship. Of course, in a post-Brexit world there will be more opportunities for Australia to enter into deeper economic ties with other nations and we hope to promote the negotiation of free trade agreement between Australia and the EU. That will be a topic of discussion with President Macron.
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