Doorstop interview - Australian Ambassador's Residence, Tokyo

  • Transcript, E&OE

JULIE BISHOP Good evening. I am delighted to have just concluded my 11th formal meeting with Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. This is my fifth visit to Tokyo since becoming Foreign Minister in September of 2013, and the frequency and quality of our meetings certainly underscores the significance Australia attaches to a very special relationship with Japan.

Foreign Minister Kishida and I have discussed a range of topics over a two-hour meeting which included bilateral cooperation and some of the regional challenges and opportunities, as well as how we are working together to solve some of the global challenges that our two nations and the rest of the world face. So it was a very productive meeting following on from Minister Turnbull and Prime Minister Abe's very successful meeting last December, and indeed the last 2+2 meeting between the Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers of Japan and Australia in November in Sydney. Any questions?

JOURNALIST During your meeting with Minister Kishida, he stressed the strategic significance of the Japanese submarine design over the German and French ones. When the decision is made, how much weight will you give and the Australian Government give to that strategic value which the Japanese submarine does have whereas the French and German maybe is a lot less? How much significance does that have for you when making a decision?

JULIE BISHOP There are three bids in the competitive evaluation process and each bid has different characteristics and each country is putting forward what they perceive to be the strengths of their bids. And I note Japan has emphasised the strategic importance of their bid, but likewise the other two bidders have emphasised what they perceive to be their strengths. So the Australian Government is in the process of evaluating all three bids and during the course of this year we will announce the country that we believe will be most appropriate to be our international partner for the future submarine fleet. Different bidders have different strengths, and what Australia is seeking to do is look at is ensuring that the international partner can meet our needs in terms of capability, quality, reach and also the needs of Australian industry and the future sustainment of the submarine fleet. So our focus is very much on capability but other factors will be taken into account as we evaluate the different bids.

JOURNALIST When Minister Kishida spoke about strategic importance of their bid, did he talk about the US alliance and how they are more closely aligned with the US?

JULIE BISHOP He did not go into such specific details. He spoke more broadly about the strategic partnership and cooperation that we already enjoy in this part of the world. I've meet with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Japan, so I've had conversations with all of them about what they perceive about the strengths of their bid. In the case of Japan I acknowledge that they speak about it in a strategic context.

JOURNALIST Is it fair to say that at this stage that you've spoken on the process obviously in the various evaluations that will go into it - cost, capability, strategic elements - and that it's a bit late into the piece to win you over in a one to one meeting?

JULIE BISHOP Well, it would be inappropriate for me to speak in any more detail about the evaluation process. There is an arm's length process under way, a recommendation will come to the National Security Committee of Cabinet, and then a decision will be taken by the government, but until such a time as that process is completed I'm not having detailed discussions with foreign ministers, I'm listening to their proposals and their advocacy about the respective strengths of their countries bids.

JOURNALIST Minister we also heard that you spoke about whaling with the Minister. What specifically?

JULIE BISHOP I reiterated Australia's deep disappointment that Japan has resumed whaling in the Pacific Ocean. I repeated the messages that Prime Minister Turnbull gave to Prime Minister Abe last December when he was here. Australia and Japan disagree on the issue of Japan's whaling in the Southern Ocean. We do not believe that lethal methods are needed in order to pursue information gathering, management and conservation of whales. Japan disagrees.

JOURNALIST Do you think that there is a link between the two subjects of whaling and submarines? How do you think that -

JULIE BISHOP Because they're both underwater?

JOURNALIST How do you think the general public in Australia will react to say a Japanese winning bid when -

JULIE BISHOP I'm not going to speculate about which country will win the bid. It will be done on the merits of the bid, on how it supports Australia's requirements for submarine capability and capacity, and how it supports long-term Australian industry needs in this area. So I see them as separate issues. We should look at the submarine evaluation process in its own right.

JOURNALIST Foreign Minister, Angus Grigg from the Financial Review Japanese officials have talked about the relationship with Australia as a 'quasi-alliance'. Do you agree with that characterisation and how would Japan not winning the submarine bid, how would that affect what you categorise as a very special relationship?

JULIE BISHOP Well I categorise it as it is formally defined, and that is a special strategic partnership. That's what we have agreed, that's what was entered into, and that's how I would categorise the relationship. What that means is that we work very closely with Japan on strategic issues. We are both democracies, we're both committed to the rule of law, we're both committed to international rules-based order, we're both committed to freedoms and democratic institutions. We often see regional and global issues through the same prism, given our shared interests and common values. That doesn't mean we agree on all issues; whaling is one example. But I think that the relationship is at an all-time high, given the level of high-profile visits that we've had. Prime Minster Abe has been to Australia a number of times, I'm hoping he'll come back again, hopefully this year, and Prime Minister Turnbull's visits and previously Prime Minister Abbott's visits were very successful. So I think that there's a very high level of engagement between our countries, probably unprecedented.

JOURNALIST Is it all but an alliance, though, is what I'm asking.

JULIE BISHOP Well, I don't know - an alliance is a formal, treaty-based agreement. We have such a relationship with New Zealand, but otherwise only with the United States. So an alliance is in a category of its own. Anything less should be described for what it is, and ours is a special strategic partnership.

JOURNALIST Could there be an alliance in the future?

JULIE BISHOP I don't envisage Australia entering into another alliance. The ANZUS treaty was signed in 1951 and we haven't had cause to enter into another similar alliance since 1951.

JOURNALIST Do you think if Japan doesn't win the submarine contract it could actually set back the relationship, or you wouldn't put it that strongly? And secondly, on the whaling issue, did you get any sense at all that Japan might modify its position down the track?

JULIE BISHOP First, in relation to the competitive evaluation process, we have been delighted with the effort that has been put in by all three bidders to the process. All have engaged most constructively and positively in the process, and of course they respect, I believe, the process that is underway and appreciate that. We've moved to the clarification stage of the evaluation process, and all bidders have been very engaged in ensuring that the Australian government and Australia experts have as much information as we need to make an appropriate evaluation. On the question of whaling, we agree to disagree at this point, but there is more evidence that is still to be provided to the International Whaling Commission by the middle of this year, the middle of 2016. We will continue to raise our opposition to whaling in the Southern Ocean in the manner that I did this evening.

JOURNALIST On the South China Sea and North Korea, did Foreign Minister Kishida make any requests for you to raise these issues in a particular way with China?

JULIE BISHOP Well, first Foreign Minister Kishida thanked Australia for our swift response to the provocative, destabilising, dangerous actions on the part of North Korea - first the nuclear tests, and then second the ballistic missile launch -and welcomed Australia's public condemnation of that behaviour. We discussed what more the United Nations Security Council can do. Japan is currently a temporary member of the UN Security Council and we agree that more measures should be taken against North Korea, lest there be any doubt that the international community condemns its actions. A North Korea with nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capability is a threat not only to regional security but to global security. Japan has just announced further autonomous sanctions against North Korea and we are considering those, as well as the further actions that the United States and Republic of Korea have taken in that regard. Australia will consider whether there are further sanctions that we should take against North Korea, in addition to encouraging the Security Council to put in place additional significant measures against North Korea. We agreed that we will continue to press North Korea on the suffering of the people of North Korea, the humanitarian crisis that was so tragically articulated in Michael Kirby's report on the human rights abuses in North Korea. We agreed that China is a key player in the attempts to restart negotiations with North Korea, a dialogue with North Korea about its behaviour, because China has a relationship with North Korea that no other country has. It is a significant supplier of goods and services and energy to North Korea, and we feel that China can use its influence to curb North Korea's behaviour.

In relation to the South China Sea, we said what we have maintained publically and privately to China and to other claimants in the South China Sea, that we urge all parties to cease reclamation and construction work in the South China Sea. We note that President Xi said in Washington that China did not intend to militarise the constructions in the South China Sea, and we hold China to that. And we also discussed ways to ensure that China embraces the international rules-based order under which so many countries in this region have prospered. That international rules-based order has been in place for seventy years, at least since the end of the Second World War, and we want to ensure that the rules-based order under which we have had relative peace and prosperity can be maintained. China, as a significant economic power in the region, also has a responsibility to maintain that international rules-based order, including in relation to the law of the sea. We don't take sides on the various territorial claims in the South China Sea, we urge all claimants to resolve their disputes peacefully, in accordance with international law and if necessary through arbitration.

JOURNALIST Is Japan encouraging Australia to participate in freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea?

JULIE BISHOP Japan doesn't have to encourage Australia. We already exercise our right to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight in the South China Sea. It's an important transit route for us and the majority of our trade passes through the South China Sea. We already exercise our right, in
accordance with international law, to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight.

JOURNALIST Does that mean we can expect an Australian warship to mount a freedom of navigation operation in the future?

JULIE BISHOP It's not an operation. Already the Australian Defence Force transits through the South China Sea. We already do that, so we'll continue to exercise our rights to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight in accordance with international law.

JOURNALIST Will Australia, in the same way that the US Navy sent the USS Lassen in order to do a freedom of navigation operation – it wasn't just passing through, they sent the ship – will Australia do something, or [indistinct]

JULIE BISHOP It's not my practice to comment on specific defence operations or defence exercises, but Australia will continue to exercise our right to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, as we have done for quite some time, in accordance with international law.

JOURNALIST Minister, Japan and South Korea have recently reached some kind of settlement about the comfort women issue, and established a fund to compensate survivors. Do you look to doing a similar thing for survivors who are living in Australia?

JULIE BISHOP We certainly welcome the efforts by both the governments of Japan and the government of the Republic of Korea to resolve what is an exceedingly sensitive matter based on historical considerations, and it was a courageous act by both governments to seek to resolve this in the way they have. We had a very positive discussion about that and Australia publically welcomed the resolution of the comfort women issue, because it was impacting upon the capacity of both Korea and Japan to work together to resolve other issues, and we think this was a very positive step for this to be resolved. As far as the implications of that agreement, that resolution, Australia will consider it, but at this stage we are working closely with both Japan and Korea to understand the implications of it for the women in this part of the world.

JOURNALIST The Foreign Minister here recently got into a bit of hot water because he didn't agree with the term 'sex slaves' that has been used for comfort women. Do you think that they were sex slaves?

JULIE BISHOP I'm not about to open up some very sensitive issues at a time when Japan and the Republic of Korea have come to resolve this issue, and I'm not about to start commenting on the detail of it. Suffice to say that we welcome the fact that both Prime Minister Abe and President Park were able to come together to agree to resolve what is a highly sensitive issue, and has been for quite some time. And so we are encouraged by the willingness of both countries to resolve such a sensitive historical issue.

JOURNALIST I'll just add to my previous question. Have developments in the region meant that Japan has become more anxious to encourage Australia to speak out more on issues like the South China Sea and North Korea? And secondly, what are some of the specific sanctions that Australia could take against North Korea?

JULIE BISHOP I wouldn't describe Japan's state as being anxious about Australia at all. We have very open and frank discussions, two way discussions. Australia puts our position, our foreign policy is quite transparent on issues surrounding the South China Sea and North Korea, to take those two issues.

JOURNALIST Do they want us to do more, though?

JULIE BISHOP Well, it's not a question of Japan wanting us to do more. It's a question of we want to do, and Australia has already made it plain that we will continue to advocate for a peaceful resolution of the different claims over the South China Sea. We've made it quite clear that we will continue to agitate for more action on the part of the UN Security Council when it comes to North Korea. I think Australia is quite capable of speaking its own mind, based on our consideration of our national interest and our foreign policy. We work very closely with Japan as we do with a number of other countries in our region, in the furtherance of peace and stability and prosperity in our part of the world. In relation to the further sanctions or action that could be taken against North Korea, we are very conscious of the fact that the people of North Korea are long-suffering. Many of them do not have enough food. There are reports that sections of the population go hungry, that there's widespread malnutrition and stunted growth amongst children. So we're very conscious of the suffering that the North Korean people are experiencing under this regime. Nevertheless, the regime must be in no doubt that the international community condemns its attempts to test nuclear weapons and to launch ballistic missiles. It is a threat to our region, it is a threat globally. So we will consider what further sanctions need to be utilised, whether they be against individuals or organisations, and we will certainly be considering what action Japan, the Republic of Korea and the US have taken in terms of autonomous sanctions.

JOURNALIST I'll just ask again about the relation with Japan. So the UK defence minister and foreign minister were here quite recently, and they're taking a two-pronged approach to their engagement in Asia – engage economically with China and strategically with Japan. Is this how you would characterise the Australian approach to this part of Asia, as a strategic engagement with Japan and an economic engagement with China? And on the strategic partnership, apart from the submarine, what are the ways that you can cement that strategic partnership with Japan? For example, would Australia host Japanese military, say for training exercises in Australia, beyond what you've already done? Could you host maybe even say a base in Australia?

JULIE BISHOP Well, we don't have foreign troops based in Australia. Our alliance partner, the United States, does not have military bases in Australia, but we cooperate with a number of countries in terms of training exercises. Singapore for example, we have a very close defence training level of cooperation with Singapore, as we do with other countries. I will leave the United Kingdom to describe how it's approaching its economic and strategic interests in this part of the world. From Australia's perspective, we have a very broad relationship with China, it is based not only economic considerations but also strategic. Our relationship with China is a comprehensive strategic partnership, that's the way it's been described and that's what we've agreed to with China, and that means that wherever possible we seek to cooperate and collaborate with China. We don't always agree but we have an open and constructive means of communication with China. But they are our largest two-way trading partner, they're not our largest foreign direct investor but they are most certainly a significant trading partner, not only for Australia but around 120 countries around the world consider China their number one merchandise trade partner. So China is a very significant economic partner in this region. We want to encourage China to be supportive of the international rules-based system. With growing economic power naturally comes a desire to be a significant regional and indeed global stakeholder, and we certainly want to encourage China to rise peacefully, as China claims to do, and we're very keen to encourage that aspiration. As far as our relationship with Japan is concerned, we work very closely in a range of areas already, our level of defence cooperation is quite significant. Of course with Japan passing security reform legislation, there'll be even greater opportunities to cooperate as we do now on humanitarian relief and natural disaster relief. Japan, Australia and a number of other countries have worked very closely as peacekeepers – I think Japan has deployed something like 10,000 peacekeepers to UN missions, about 27 different missions in some very dangerous parts of the world. So we certainly encourage normalisation of Japan's defence posture so it can continue to be a positive force for good in the region and in the world.

JOURNALIST You say that the relationship between Japan and Australia is at an all-time high. Would you say the relationship between Australia and China is at an all-time high?

JULIE BISHOP Yes, I would. Yes, I would. I think that Australia has engaged very successfully in our region. We have concluded free trade agreements with China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, an unprecedented level of access with those three countries, the three North Asian giants, and this is where the majority of our trade takes place, and through these free trade agreements we are engaging with China, Japan and South Korea in unprecedented ways. I think in the case of China we will see a diversification of our economic relationship. The opportunity to engage in the services sector is probably unparalled. So we will see a considerable diversification of our exports to China over the years, and also the level of engagement is also significant.

JOURNALIST You're not suggesting that the relationship we enjoy with Japan is anywhere near as strong as the one we enjoy with China?

JULIE BISHOP I don't obsess over this kind of issue. I deal with each relationship on its terms, on its merits, and my job is to enhance, broaden, deepen, diversify our bilateral relations with China, with Japan, with South Korea, with Indonesia, with India, and there are very significant relationships that Australia has to nurture in our region, and we put a significant effort into all of them.

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