MARISE PAYNE: …what a thrill it is to be back in Washington and this time for G'Day USA on the East Coast and to wrap up what's been a really good couple of weeks for the G'Day USA Campaign in its 16th year, which really is a testament to not just longevity but innovation and the key things that we engage on between Australia and the United States in G'Day USA.
I'm going to take the opportunity while I'm here as well as meetings I've already had today with key committee chairs, breakfast with the Congressional caucus on Australia, I'm going to take the opportunity as well to meet with my counterparts, Secretary Pompeo, with the National Security Advisor, Ambassador Bolton, and look forward to exchanging views with them on key issues and key issues of interest within the alliance and more broadly. There's a lot happening in Washington at the moment. It's an exciting week to be here and very happy to answer a few questions.
QUESTION: Minister, could you give an update on Yang Hengjun in China, the detention? Have you got any update on that and have you raised that with American officials here because he was living in New York for several years? Are they taking an active interest in his case there?
MARISE PAYNE: So, of course, as you know, Australian authorities both in Canberra and in Beijing have raised our concerns in relation to Mr Yang's recent detention. We have had a consular visit with him at the end of last weekend and look forward to the embassy taking up the opportunity of a further consular visit in due course. We are awaiting further details from the Chinese government but it is fair to say that these issues are of interest on both sides of the Pacific and certainly have been raised with me today.
QUESTION: Do you think that Huawei is a threat to Australia's national security? And do you suspect, like the Americans do, that they've been involved in stealing Australian trade secrets?
MARISE PAYNE: I think we've been very clear since a decision was announced in relation to our 5G network stand up last year that we are focused entirely on securing Australia's national interest, protecting Australia's national security, and that has been the clear message out of the decision that we have made and as it was announced by the Treasurer then, Mr Morrison.
In relation to the US engagement on this matter, that is a matter for them and for their legal processes and I'll watch that takes its course.
QUESTION: Minister, more broadly, Dan Coats, the head of US National Intelligence today had a threat assessment, which was released, in which he was very damning about all aspects of China's all-government efforts to, what he said, undermine democracy through cyber warfare and military brinksmanship. Do you share those general concerns about the way China is trying to peddle its influence in the region and in the world?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, I look forward to meeting with Mr Coats tomorrow. I last saw him when he visited Australia, I think, last year and it will be good to, as you say, speak to him about his most recent update. What the Australian Government has been focused on, as you would have seen with our foreign interference legislation last year and our concerns about those issues, they're not country-specific; they are concerned about protecting Australia's national interests and Australia's national security. We have been very focused on that to the extent that we have been able to introduce and pass legislation to do exactly that. I have found in recent months that has been of great interest here in the United States and elsewhere and I'd be very happy to talk to counterparts about that if they wanted to pursue those issues.
QUESTION: Do you think the Australian businesspeople should be worried if they're doing business in China? Is there an increased risk at the moment that they might be seized and charged with spurious crimes?
MARISE PAYNE: I think Australian businesspeople, wherever they are engaged in business, should be, of course, conscious and protective of their own security. They should also always be checking our travel advice, for example. But most importantly, they should be assuring themselves they accord with the laws of the land in which they are operating. I would recommend that no matter where it was occurring in the world. Most importantly though, we need to ensure that we are engaged in open conversation, open dialogue, with our partners across the region including China on these issues and to make sure that there is minimal and preferably no space for misunderstanding between us.
QUESTION: Just on that - would you consider upgrading the travel threat to China? I think it's lower than it is for France at the moment.
MARISE PAYNE: We review our travel advice regularly, and in the case of China, as recently as today, I have sought advice again from the Department on that.
QUESTION: Would you be - on the issue of Syria, the Coats report today said that ISIS was still capable of organising external attacks from Syria. Will you - what will you say to the Americans about its decision - their decision to remove US troops from Syria? Do you agree with it?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, I would certainly say that ISIS or ISIL is more than capable of doing that and we have seen claimed in recent days a horrific attack in the Philippines just to our north in our own region, which is said to have been the responsibility of those inspired by ISIL. That speaks for itself in terms of the continuing threat that they pose as a violent extremist organisation, a terrorist organisation. And we must continue our vigilance within the region and more broadly, in relation to their activities. With respect to the US' announced decision in relation to Syria, I'm sure that will be a subject of discussion between myself, the Secretary and the National Security Adviser this week.
QUESTION: It sounds like you're saying it's premature, is it? Is that the case?
MARISE PAYNE: I'm saying that ISIL continues to be a terrorist threat. I don't think that's any different from what the United States is saying.
QUESTION: So therefore, you would challenge their thinking on this?
MARISE PAYNE: I'm not challenging anyone's thinking. I'm stating that ISIS continues to be a terrorist threat both in the Middle East and more broadly, and most unfortunately we have seen that played out again in our region and the Australian Government has conveyed our sympathies and support to the government of the Philippines. We have an extremely important network between Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, key regions, Singapore, key countries in our own region which works at countering the threat of terrorism across the region, whether it is home-grown domestic or from further abroad, that is work I think we must continue to focus on and which we would take our eye off that ball to our great detriment, I think.
QUESTION: What about Venezuela? Is there a risk that we're moving towards a military coup or a quite hazardous situation there?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, I think you would find many Venezuelans already thought they were in a position which, to use your words Matthew, would be described as a hazardous situation and Australia is very concerned to see a return to a proper democracy in Venezuela as soon as possible, and for that reason made the announcement we did this week.
QUESTION: Do you have any concerns that Russia or China could try to influence the outcome of the upcoming Australian election in any way at all?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, I think if you take our foreign interference legislation and our focus on that, the work of our intelligence agencies, we will work assiduously to ensure that any external threat, no matter where it comes from, that might be targeted at interfering with the Australian democratic processes are dealt with long before it becomes a problem for us.
QUESTION: And on trade, are you worried about the issues with Huawei and the indictments spilling over into that? And how important is it for Australia for there to be a resolution before March?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, I understand that vice minister is here in Washington this week for discussions on key trade issues. There are many areas of reform on which we agree with the United States. Most importantly, though, we would like to see both parties able to come to a resolution on that and within the WTO context to ensure that we are protecting open and free trading and the markets, as we know them, and frankly have the opportunity to enjoy them. I hope that those discussions are productive and positive and I think it's a good step.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Last question.
QUESTION: Where do we stand on- where does Australia stand on the issue of making China put a system in place which is verifiable on some of these trade issues?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, I think Minister Birmingham as Trade Minister has been pursuing those issues in his discussions internationally. But most importantly, we have a system in place through the WTO, we have rules and arrangements which are well known and understood. That's not to say that there are not aspects of those which we think can be effectively reformed and we hope that if China and the United States are able to come to an agreement in these discussions that we can then look at the reform options that are available to us.
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