Interview with Ben Fordham - Radio 2GB

  • Transcript, E&OE

BEN FORDHAM: Julie Bishop is our Foreign Minister, shejoins us on the line. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, good afternoon to you.

JULIE BISHOP: Good afternoon Ben, good to be with you.

BEN FORDHAM: I don't mean to sound like a doomsday-erbut when you talk about Chinese warships and guns and rockets on our doorstep,that doesn't fill me with enthusiasm, Foreign Minister?

JULIE BISHOP: Regarding that report today, theGovernment of Vanuatu has said that there is no proposal, of which they areaware, to establish a Chinese military base on Vanuatu. I am not aware of anyspecifics in regard to a military offer being made to by China and theGovernment of Vanuatu has said that there is no proposal. I am certainly awarethat Chinese vessels have visited Vanuatu. They were there last year as part ofa broader visit to the region. These sorts of visits are normal for many naviesaround the world, including our own.

We have to remember that Vanuatu is a sovereign nation and its foreignand defence relations are a matter for Vanuatu. However, of course Australiawill continue to monitor what happens in the Pacific. It is our neighbourhood.It is our region in a sense that we are the major strategic partner for many ofthe countries in the Pacific. We have very good relations with Vanuatu and Iremain confident that we are Vanuatu's strategic partner of choice. Forexample, I was in Vanuatu on Saturday with Prince Charles but I took theopportunity to inspect the reconstruction work that Australia is carrying outin response to the devastating impact of Tropical Cyclone Pam three years ago.Australia was there from the outset, supporting Vanuatu with a humanitarianresponse. Our Defence Force came in to support them. We had 1,700 AustraliaDefence Force personnel in Vanuatu, we had HMAS Tubrok, we had a C17, a c130,transport planes, we had Black Hawk helicopters. We were able to assist Vanuatuas a great friend, as a neighbour, and as a partner of choice.

BEN FORDHAM: So it is important that we keep buildingon those relations. It does sound a little bit, Foreign Minister, like, and Ican understand why, like we're trying to show Vanuatu how close we are toVanuatu and it looks like China has been doing exactly the same thing and weknow that money talks. They have brought a lot of money into Vanuatu, haven'tthey?

JULIE BISHOP: It is certainly in our interests to stepup our engagement with countries of the Pacific including Vanuatu and that iswhat we have been doing. It was set out in our 2017 Foreign Policy White Paperthat we released last November - that the Pacific is one of our highest ofpriority and that we will step up our engagement with all of the countries ofthe Pacific.

In relation to China, China has been making significant contributions tothe economic growth and development of countries around the world, not just inour region, but around the world. The point that we make is, while we welcomeinvestment from other countries that support sustainable growth in the Pacific,we also have to ensure that it responds to the Pacific Governments' prioritiesand doesn't impose a heavy debt burden.

BEN FORDHAM: I know you need to be diplomatic aboutthese things Foreign Minister, but we can't deny that China is trying to useits influence in the region, including in our own backyard. I mean, we saw itwith Shanghai Sam Dastyari, where the former Labor Senator was even prepared tocall a press conference and announce a policy that was contrary to Labor Partypolicy in Australia and this is because he was being leaned on by people whoare influential Chinese businessmen, influential Chinese businessmen who havelinks with the communist regime back home. So-

JULIE BISHOP: I don't know that he was being leaned on,I think he was taking money, including for his own personal indebtedness. Ithink that was a rather extraordinarily situation. Let me make this point,China is a growing regional and global power. Its economic heft, if you like,means that it is the number one trading partner for about 120 or more countriesaround the world, including Australia. Commensurate with its growing economicweight, it wants to be seen as a strategic influence as well, as other nationswant to be influential when it affects their national interest. We must ensurethat we work with China so that its development assistance, including itsinfrastructure funding, supports the national interest of the countries that itis assisting. I think that is an important role for Australia to play.

For example, we are working with China on an anti-malaria program inPNG, and it is in our interests to wipe out malaria in PNG, of course, but weare using Chinese expertise with some Australian funding, working with the PNGGovernment. It is a three-way effort, harnessing China's commitment andcontribution to get a great outcome not only for PNG, if we can eliminate malaria,but also for Australia and other countries in the region.

BEN FORDHAM: When we have a look at China increasingits grip in the South China Sea, and when China says no, that's mainly forcivilian purposes, do we buy that line or do we accept the fact that they areusing airstrips and other military installations to prepare for whatever thefuture may bring?

JULIE BISHOP: We have beenvery consistent and in public and in private in relation to this matter inrelation to the South China Sea. There are numerous claimants over differentparts of the South China Sea, about eight in all. Different nations claimdifferent parts of the South China Sea. China has by far the largest claim. Ourpoint is that there should be no unilateral action, there should be nomilitarisation, there should be no steps taken that increase tensions in theregion, and that all these different maritime claims should be resolvedpeacefully through negotiation or resorting to the UN Convention on the Law ofthe Sea. That is what Australia did with our recent conciliation process withTimor-Leste over the Timor Sea. We sought to negotiate, we subjected ourselvesto a conciliation process under UNCLOS, the UN Convention on the Law of theSea, and we negotiated an outcome peacefully and now we are starting a wholenew chapter of positive relations with Timor-Leste as a result. That is what wewant to see in the South China Sea, that all of the differences, and there aremany differences in theSouth China Sea, in claimants' minds, should be resolved peacefully.

JOURNALIST: Just a couple of quick ones. I know thatat the start of the interview you said that Vanuatu is denying that there'sbeen a proposal put them from China to set up a base there. Are you aware thatthe Australian Defence Force has told Chris Uhlmann at Nine News that they areaware of the plan?

JULIE BISHOP: I am aware that an unnamed defenceofficial said that they are aware that China has offered military engagementwith Vanuatu but didn't go into any details. That could mean that they want tocontinue these navy visits to Vanuatu and other parts of the Pacific. We areaware that Chinese vessels do traverse the Pacific, we are aware that they dovisit other Pacific nations as other countries do around the world as well. ThePacific is a very important strategic zone. It is important for Australia andwe are certainly increasing our engagement and involvement in the Pacific, inour interests and in the interests of our Pacific friends.

BEN FORDHAM: Are we aware of any other Pacific friendswho have been loaned money by China and who would now like our help withsettling those debts?

JULIE BISHOP: I am aware that there is a debt in Tongaowed to China for an infrastructure investment. You see, we provide grants.That is the usual course that we undertake. We provide grants, China providesfinancial facilities like loans and the like. There are different ways ofproviding infrastructure assistance. Australia has always provided grantsbecause we don't want to place debt burdens on, in some cases, vulnerableeconomies. What we seek to do with our grants is drive opportunities foreconomic growth so that these Pacific nations can be self-sustaining, that theycan have a growing economy, so that they can have sustainable growth,sustainable jobs for the future.

BEN FORDHAM: Just lastlyJulie Bishop. It's been revealed today that Peter proposed cutting the annual immigrationintake by 20,000 but apparently was stopped by Malcolm Turnbull and ScottMorrison. So, I'm guessing he didn't put the proposal to you?

JULIE BISHOP: No, certainly not. I am not aware of thatproposal. I am not aware of it from discussions that I have had as recently astoday with the Prime Minister. I don't know where this so-called proposal camefrom. It didn't come to Cabinet, it didn't come to National Security Committee– I am on both. If there was a casual discussion somewhere of course I wouldn'tbe aware of it but I am certainly not aware of any formal proposal of thisnature at all. The point is, the 190,000 is a ceiling, it is not a target. Youcan adjust your net migration figures to anything below 190,000.

BEN FORDHAM: Should we be having a look at a reductionconsidering some of the overcrowding that has been going on in some of themajor cities?

JULIE BISHOP: You have to look at the benefits ofmigration and of course you can adjust it according to our economic circumstances.

Our net migration figures have varied over time depending upon thedemands of the Australian economy. For example, the majority of our visas arefor skilled workers, skilled migration. If our economy is demanding moreskilled migration then you bring them in. If our economy slows and we don'tneed the same number of skilled workers, then you don't take them. Familyreunion is another is another area, and then of course, a much smaller area ishumanitarian and refugee intake.

We have people coming to Australia for great benefits, the number offoreign students who come here, that drives economic growth, tourists, we wantto see more tourists come here, and so our visa system, our universal visasystem, is something that the Government can control.

BEN FORDHAM: Good onyou. Thank you so much for joining us this afternoon, Foreign Minister JulieBishop.

JULIE BISHOP: My pleasure. Thanks Ben.

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