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Transcript E&OE

5 July 2009

Interview with Laurie Oakes, Channel 9

Subjects: North Korea, Malaysia, China, Prime Minister's travel.

Cameron Williams: North Korea, of course, continues to thumb its nose at the world, firing seven ballistic missiles off its eastern coast.

The so-called tests are in violation of UN resolutions, and some believe its timing on American Independence Day sends a clear message to the United States.

It's a tense time for international politics, and it's how we begin this morning's Laurie Oakes interview. Laurie's special guest is the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith.

Good morning, Laurie.

Laurie Oakes: Morning, Cam.

Mr Smith, welcome to the program.

Stephen Smith: Thanks very much, Laurie.

Laurie Oakes: Seven North Korean ballistic missile tests on American Independence Day. What is Pyongyang up to?

Stephen Smith: It's clearly a provocative act. It's clearly aimed at the United States. It's not the first time, historically, they've committed provocative acts on the Fourth of July or Independence Day.

The important thing is, already we've seen unanimous international community condemnation, including from the Security Council members, so whilst we share that condemnation, it is important not to overreact. We know that the North Koreans are difficult customers.

There's not going to be a short-term solution to this, but we need to continue to have unanimous international community support of the various United Nations Security Council resolutions, including the most recent, the unanimous Resolution 1874.

Laurie Oakes: You say it's a provocative act. What is it likely to provoke? Are you concerned about a regional arms race?

Stephen Smith: We are concerned to ensure that North Korea doesn't go to a clear nuclear delivery capacity. And the combination here, the insidious combination here, is of course worrying: about a developing nuclear weapons capacity, as we saw with their recent underground test, matched with or coupled with improvements in their delivery system. And if we don't get that under control through the Security Council, through the international community, then we do worry about the increase of tension, the lack of confidence and the danger that other countries in the region will seek to respond.

And that's why it's been very important in this most recent series of provocative acts that the international community - and we've seen it from not just the United States, but from Russia and China and Australia as well - make the point that yes, we condemn it, but let's not overreact. Let's keep calm, understanding we've got to get the North Koreans back into a sensible dialogue and there won't necessarily be an easy or a short-term solution to this and it may well take some time.

Laurie Oakes: It's easy to see why North Korea's neighbours, Japan and South Korea, are worried, but could Australia be under threat?

Stephen Smith: The immediate threat of course is in the Korean Peninsula and in North Asia and we've been working very closely with the Republic of Korea - with South Korea - and also with Japan itself and we're very strongly and fully supportive of them before the Security Council and international community generally.

So the immediate threat is there. There are some suggestions that in the long term, if North Korea continues with its ballistic delivery system, that wider areas will fall for consideration or for concern. But in the immediate future, it's the North Korean peninsula, North Asia, and tensions in North Asia itself that we are primarily concerned about.

That's why, for some time, we've been very strongly supportive of the so-called Six-Party Talks and we continue to urge North Korea to go back to the dialogue of the Six-Party Talks. And we recently had our ambassador in Pyongyang, in North Korea, last month making precisely these points which we've been making consistently, both publicly and privately, to North Korea.

Laurie Oakes: Does North Korea have missiles that could reach any part of Australia?

Stephen Smith: If you look at their most recent efforts, I think the most worrying thing is not their current capacity in terms of distance or scope, but how they have improved, both in their underground test in 2006 and in their ballistic missile test in 2006.

We've seen improvements, regrettably, in their technology and their approach. But even the most recent efforts at ballistic missile tests were unsuccessful in their third stage. So that's why our primary concern for the moment is in North Asia and the Korean Peninsula itself, but we do need to, through the international community, stop North Korea's nuclear program because the combination of its delivery system capability and its developing nuclear capacity is of course the cause of the great international concern.

Laurie Oakes: You're off to Malaysia tonight, I think, with the Prime Minister. Isn't that unusual for both of you to make a visit like that together?

Stephen Smith: We're travelling separately but we are both in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow. I'm leaving from Perth tonight. It's my first official visit to Malaysia. It's also the first official meeting of Australia's and Malaysia's Foreign Ministers under our new arrangement for annual Foreign Ministerial meetings.

So I'll be meeting my counterpart in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow morning and then in the evening, Prime Minister Rudd will transit through Kuala Lumpur and meet with Prime Minister Najib and we'll have a joint call on him.

Yes, it is unusual because normally the practice of Australia is that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister essentially travel separately, but we want to underline the importance of the relationship we have with Malaysia. It has, of course, over the recent historical period had its moments, but we have a much better relationship with Malaysia now and we want to reinforce and underline that.

Malaysia has historically been a very important partner with Australia, both in terms of people to people contact - particularly students, going back to the Colombo Plan, but also through our defence support and defence arrangements and we'll of course also be having very serious conversations with the Malaysians about our joint efforts against people smuggling.

Laurie Oakes: Obviously, now that Dr Mahathir has gone, Malaysia is not so recalcitrant, to use Paul Keating's word. Is that why we're duchessing them?

Stephen Smith: It's not so much duchessing them. Prime Minister Rudd had very good personal contact and relationship with former Prime Minister Abdullah. I had good meetings with the former Foreign Minister, and we're just reinforcing and underlining the importance of the relationship.

And it is historically the case, as you point out and as I said, that the relationship in recent historical terms has had its moments. We want to put that, and have put that, behind us. But it is, we think, open to both Australia and Malaysia to enhance and further entrench a very good relationship. An important historical partner, Malaysia, but one that we think we can do much more with, both in the region and internationally.

Laurie Oakes: Well, Mr Keating of course is still making his presence felt. The other day he took pot shots at the Rudd Government's view of China, suggesting you're being too defensive. What's your response to Paul Keating's criticisms?

Stephen Smith: I had a very careful look at Mr Keating's speech, and other than one or two references which most of the commentators have focused on, frankly it's very much a ringing endorsement of what the Australian Government has been doing so far as China and Asia is concerned.

Laurie Oakes: [Interrupts] Well, let me - just let me ask you this: he said that the Defence White Paper failed to spell out whether the Government sees the growth of China's military capabilities as natural and legitimate or something we should regard as a threat and for which we should plan.

So which is it?

Stephen Smith: There were two points that Mr Keating make that I would make comments about.

One is: he said that our relationship with China was defensive. It's not defensive at all. We have a positive, productive and forward-looking relationship with China.

Secondly, on the White Paper, the White Paper of course doesn't refer to and is not aimed at one particular nation. It's looking at Australia's long-term security and strategic interest.

On the question of China and its military modernisation, which was the point that Mr Keating made that you've referred to, the Australian Government, including the Prime Minister and I, have made the point to China that as China emerges as a growing economy, as an economic power, of course its military capacity and its military deployments and its military assets will increase.

That's a natural thing. But what we do need to have more from China is what is the strategic underpinning of this military enhancement. We've made the point to China that China does need to be more transparent about the strategic underpinnings of its military modernisation.

But just like Mr Keating, the Australian Government very much wants China to emerge as a productive player in the international community. China talks about emerging into a harmonious environment. Australia talks in terms of China being a responsible international stakeholder.

And we're confident that that will occur, but we're not starry-eyed about our relationship with China. There are a range of things where we have differing views with China, including human rights issues, but we have an important economic relationship with China but a growing productive one. And that's very important as in this century economic and political and strategic influence moves to the Asia-Pacific region, not just because of the rise of China, but also the rise of India and the rise of the ASEAN economies combined.

Laurie Oakes: Now, China has criticised an Australian Parliamentary delegation for meeting the Dalai Lama. Have you told China where to stick its protest?

Stephen Smith: They've made a low-level official's comment. My attitude is quite straightforward and clear. This is a reflection of Australia's democratic strengths. It's entirely appropriate for a Parliamentary delegation to visit India and entirely appropriate for a Parliamentary delegation to make contact with the Dalai Lama if it so chooses.

The Australian Government continually says to China that we believe the Chinese authorities and the Dalai Lama and his representatives should engage in dialogue. And we've also made very strong remarks about human rights in Tibet, but it's entirely appropriate for that Parliamentary delegation to make contact with the Dalai Lama and his representatives if they so choose.

Laurie Oakes: Now, we've mentioned that Kevin Rudd leaves on another overseas trip tomorrow. This is the bloke that Time Magazine has now dubbed Australia's Global Guy.

I picked up the paper yesterday and I was a bit startled to see a headline saying: Sainthood on agenda as Rudd visits Pope.

Saint Kevin conjures up wonderful images, doesn't he?

Stephen Smith: Oh, I think they had a different saint in mind, Laurie. I think in the course of his trip, the Prime Minister will see the Pope and I'm sure will relay the views of the Australian Catholic community and the Catholic Church about Mary MacKillop.

But the fundamental and underlying...

Laurie Oakes: That's why I asked you the question, you see. Why is the Prime Minister of Australia getting involved in something like this? It's an internal Catholic Church matter, why should the Prime Minister dabble in that, interfere in that?

Stephen Smith: He's not dabbling - he's neither dabbling nor interfering, nor is it really a key focus of his trip, but it's entirely appropriate for the Prime Minister to relay...

Laurie Oakes: [Interrupts] It's the headline...

Stephen Smith: Well, I'm not responsible for the headlines that newspapers produce, Laurie.

It's entirely appropriate for the Prime Minister to relay the views of the Australian community and the Australian Catholic community about such a matter. It would be a very good thing for Australia if in the event Mary MacKillop became a saint but that's a matter for the Church.

Laurie Oakes: But Kevin Rudd doesn't represent the Catholic Church. I mean the Pope presumably has his own channels to Australia's Catholic community. Why would the Prime Minister get involved in something like this? It's amazing.

Stephen Smith: He's neither seeking to nor is he imposing himself on it, but it's entirely appropriate for him to relay those views, just as it's entirely appropriate for the Prime Minister to support, in the course of the trip he's on, Australia's World Cup bid so far as soccer is concerned.

But the primary focus and purpose of the trip is two very important challenges the international community faces.

One is the international economic circumstances, and he's actually going to the meeting of the Major Economies Forum, which is the top 17 economies in the world, of which we are one, but also dealing with the issue of climate change in the run-up to Copenhagen.

He'll be attending, together with Minister Wong, the most important international meeting in the run-up to Copenhagen, but in the course of his visit, he'll also be dealing with leaders from the G8 and underlining the importance of the G-20, and Australia's role in the G-20, in addressing and combating the difficulties we all face so far as the international economic and financial crisis is concerned.

That's the primary focus and that's absolutely essential, but the other things he is doing are also very appropriate and in Australia's interest.

Laurie Oakes: Mr Smith, we're out of time, but thank you.

Stephen Smith: Thanks very much, Laurie. Thank you.

Cameron Williams: Thank you very much, Laurie.

[Ends]

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