BOB CARR: We think Burma's acceptance of election observers at all is a big step forward, and should be welcomed as a sign of increasing transparency.
There's certainly more to be done, but I would like to put a positive interpretation on this. The presence of election observers and international media at this weekend's by-election is a very important step forward.
I think we should remind ourselves of how far we've come with Burma.
MICHAEL CAVANAGH: So you're confident that it still is very open, and transparent, and free and fair?
BOB CARR: Well, there are going to be observers there to judge that, and we'll continue to liaise with all the stakeholders. That's not only the Government of Burma, of course, but the opposition, the range of opposition forces and with our partners in ASEAN.
MICHAEL CAVANAGH: There are differing views from the members of the ASEAN countries and the wider region towards Burma. Do you notice though, is there more of a shift to a uniform stance towards Burma?
BOB CARR: I think the message from ASEAN is probably that the Government of Burma is taking risks as it opens up the system and takes steps — important steps — towards democracy. And we should be aware that as well as the stick of sanctions, we've got the carrot of lifting those sanctions.
And again, I'd emphasise, and it's reinforced by the talks I've had with ASEAN nations, Burma's come a long way. It's going to be far from a tidy or easy situation, but we should emphasise the fact that there have been hundreds of political prisoners released, there are by-elections taking place and Aung San Suu Kyi is a candidate. And there has been a reform of labour laws, developed in consultation, I understand, with the ILO.
These are big steps. We've come a long way, and we're hoping that the elections are going to be of the type that can be endorsed by all the participants and that the official observers are able to tick them off as being a sound, democratic process.
MICHAEL CAVANAGH: While you were in Cambodia, you visited the so-called killing fields. How much did that reinforce to you the need for the Khmer Rouge tribunal?
BOB CARR: Very much, and we visited the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and saw a short moment of the trial. We, for a short period, observed the evidence given by Duch, who was regarded as the chief jailer of the regime, against Khieu Samphan.
Australia has put another $1 million into the trial, because we see it as being hugely significant, sorry — $1.6 million. And we emphasise that the trial has got to be seen as something independent of Government.
But the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, in which these trials are being held, is very important not just for this country, which has made such progress in moving beyond the civil war, but for humanity as a whole.
MICHAEL CAVANAGH: Well, you met with Hun Sen and, also, other senior Government officials. You, yourself, have been quoted as saying the trials are proceeding on a robust basis and it's an effective example of international and national action.
At the same time, as you point out, Australia has poured money into the tribunals. Is that because there is a worry that maybe there is not that impetus to continue and pursue those people that should be put on trial?
BOB CARR: No. In discussing this with Cambodian ministers, I was reassured the trial process is continuing.
MICHAEL CAVANAGH: Is there any concern at all that we've had two of the foreign judges step down from the tribunal in the last 12 months, one of them — the most recent — citing interference from his Cambodian counterpart? Is that a concern?
BOB CARR: Of course it is, and that's why I took it up and emphasised in my discussions with the Cambodian Government that it's very important it be seen as an independent process.
And, of course, we underlined the fact that, uniquely, this process is a joint international Cambodian exercise. That means judges from inside the country and administrators from inside the country sitting with their international counterparts.
MICHAEL CAVANAGH: In Vietnam, the issue of the South China Sea and the tensions there, Vietnam's one of the countries pushing its claims, along with China and the Philippines. Did you discuss that at any length and did you notice any change in the position?
BOB CARR: No, the position of the claimants on the South China Sea is clear to us, it's been explained to us. We don't take a position on those respective claims — on those competing territorial claims being made in the Sea.
But we do see a need to clarify and pursue those claims, and accompanying maritime rights in accordance with international law, including the UN Law of the Sea Convention.
We've got a big stake in this, because 60 per cent, over 60 per cent of Australia's international trade is with North and South-east Asia, and transit through the South China Sea. So it is important, we believe, that agreement between China and the ASEAN states last year on guidelines, be pursued. Those guidelines implement the declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Seas, and we'd encourage China and the ASEAN countries to work towards a binding code of conduct, and refrain from actions that could increase tensions.
MICHAEL CAVANAGH: Given that, and the greater military links now between Australia and the US, do the Vietnamese see that as a possible way of countering China specifically in relation to the South China Sea?
BOB CARR: I'm not sure I could place that interpretation on what the Vietnamese said. They restated their position, and I restated ours. I think that's where we can leave it at this stage, as we look towards this being dealt with in the context of that declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea, and the agreement between China and ASEAN states, which set that up.
MICHAEL CAVANAGH: And you've also been in Singapore, met with the Prime Minister there, and Singapore has also moved to have closer defence links with the US, the US personnel in Northern Australia. Was that discussed in any way of combining the two, and widening it throughout the region?
BOB CARR: No, it hasn't been, it hasn't been. It's important to emphasise that, as my colleague, the Defence Minister Stephen Smith has said, the decision on the marine taskforce rotating through the Northern Territory is one that is a natural growth of the ANZUS relationship. And it's got to be seen in context with the greater access to RAAF bases in the Northern Territory for US aircraft, and in the longer term, greater naval access to HMAS Stirling. But no, we haven't pursued that with our Singaporean partners.
MICHAEL CAVANAGH: How much did you need to explain to any of the countries about the latest tie-up with the US, and the defence links there?
BOB CARR: It came up when I was in Vietnam and we touched on it in Singapore, but it didn't require a great deal of explanation. I pointed out, as I've pointed out every time I've discussed this, that it's a rotating presence, it's marines being trained, conducting exercise in the Northern Territory. And of course being available for disaster relief, and for cooperative exercises with ASEAN countries, in perfecting our delivery, our performance, of disaster relief.
MICHAEL CAVANAGH: At the same time that you're talking about this, the issue of Cocos Islands being used as a launching area for US drone flights, that also presents this image of greater ties between Australia and the US, and focusing very much on the region. Did that also figure in any of the talks?
BOB CARR: No. What I can say is that this morning the Indonesian Foreign Minister rang me seeking information about this, and I was able to say to him that the proposal about Cocos Island is very much a long term prospect that is not being discussed or decided at ministerial level in Australia.
Indeed when Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary of State, was here a week ago, it wasn't raised by him, and he didn't seek to raise it.
Stephen Smith said the night before last on 7.30 that the Cocos Islands are seen as a potential strategic asset for Australia, but there's been no conversation about what we might do, and we would certainly keep in touch with our regional partners, like Indonesia, as our thinking develops.
But at this stage, there's a lot of speculation about this, and there is no decision by Australia, and no request from the United States, about this sort of use of Cocos Island.
MICHAEL CAVANAGH: Did the Indonesian Foreign Minister express a view, or did he just want it explained to him?
BOB CARR: The Indonesian Foreign Minister, entirely reasonably, wanted some information and I was happy to tell him that we have no proposal before us, no request from the United States, that there's been no discussion at ministerial level in Australia. Obviously that island is a potential strategic asset, but there's been no conversation about what we might do with it.
And I can say that we would certainly be in contact with our regional partners and friends as our thinking develops, and it's entirely reasonable for Indonesia to seek information.
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