Interview with Philip Williams, ABC The World

  • Transcript, E&OE
29 January 2018

PHILIP WILLIAMS: Well Foreign Minister Julie Bishop doesn't believe China and Russia pose any direct military threat to Australia. This despite the US' recently published national defence strategy which singles out the two superpowers as threats greater than terrorism. Our chief foreign correspondent Philip Williams spoke to the Foreign Minister from Los Angeles about this, Australia's arm sales, and the foreign policy agenda for the year.Welcome Minister, thanks very much for talking to The World. You're in the US at a very interesting time because there's a major re-ordering of priorities for defence in the US. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has said that China and Russia are a greater threat to national security than Islamic terrorism, describing them as revisionist powers. Do you agree with that assessment?

JULIE BISHOP: The way I read Secretary Mattis' statement is he's referring to the geostrategic competition that Russia and China pose to the United States, and that's an ongoing global debate. The question of whether Islamic terrorism should continue to be a national security issue of course is one that Australia believes is very important. The terrorists have not only indicated their intention, but their capability to kill Australians and others, so we still rate international terrorism as a significant national security treat to Australia. We certainly don't see Russia or China posing a direct military threat to Australia and I don't believe Secretary Mattis was suggesting that Russia or China pose a direct military threat to the United States. He's talking about the geostrategic competition they pose.

PHILIP WILLIAMS: But in terms of that competition, you don't agree with his overall assessment that they pose a threat to the United States, and it does appear that Defence Minister Marise Payne and the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce have lent support to his view of characterising China and Russia. So in a sense, who is representing the Australian government's view on that, them or you?

JULIE BISHOP: This is non-debate. Marise Payne said that we share concerns with the United States, and we do, in terms of the geostrategic competition. We of course agree with the United States on issues concerning China's actions in the South China Sea for example, but the point that Secretary Mattis was making was not that China and Russia pose a direct military threat to the United States, and so we are talking about different aspects of the same debate.

PHILIP WILLIAMS: And yet I guess Australia is almost uniquely caught in this, in this pincer of two competing interests, potentially, and that is between the economic life, our economic lifeline in China and our security blanket in the USA. How do we navigate that when it's quite possible that the tensions between the US and China will rise, particularly over the South China Sea?

JULIE BISHOP: We're not uniquely placed in the sense that we are the only nation in this position. China is our largest trading partner, but China happens to be the largest trading partner of about 120 nations around the world. And we are an ally of the United States, and so are other nations in our region. The United States is our second largest trading partner but by far our largest source of foreign direct investment. But there are other nations that are similarly very dependent upon their economic relationship with China, perhaps to a lesser extent with the United States, but they have a defence or strategic alliance with the United States. It's a question of balancing our interests and always acting in what we believe is Australia's national interest.

PHILIP WILLIAMS: Well our international development Pacific Minister Senator Fierravanti-Wells described China's aid program as funding roads leading nowhere and useless buildings. It's caused a storm in Beijing and the region, but wasn't she just saying it how it is?

JULIE BISHOP: Australia welcomes development assistance in the Pacific. It is an area of developing nations. There is a great need for investments so that we can see sustained economic growth and we welcome investment. I would like to see greater coordination between Australia and China and other donor countries so that we can ensure the most effective and efficient support for nations in the Pacific. The offer of aid is always done in negotiation with the receiving country so whether it be China or Australia or anyone else, you negotiate the needs, the requirements, the capabilities. We would like to see more cooperation with China and other donor nations so that we do get the best outcome in the Pacific, which is sustained economic growth and a higher standard of living for all citizens in the Pacific.

PHILIP WILLIAMS: But do you agree with the major thrust of what she was saying was that much of China's aid is useless, is not reaching the people or the goals of sustainable development in the region and that some of these countries are being saddled with unreasonable levels of debt?

JULIE BISHOP: I have said many times and in fact I believe it is the Foreign Policy White Paper that we are concerned about unsustainable debt burdens in the Pacific and this is an issue we seek to address with our Pacific partners. But the point is we do need infrastructure funding, we do need development assistance in the Pacific. I think we can better coordinate the donations, the support from donor countries to the recipient countries, but it is a partnership. Australia partners with countries in the Pacific to provide an appropriate level of support so that they can be sustainable economies. That's what we believe that is what all countries should seek to do.

PHILIP WILLIAMS: Now, a couple of days ago, US President Trump surprised everyone at Davos saying that the US could possibly join the TPP. This is the trade deal that has just been signed with 11 countries. How far would we be prepared to go to sweeten the deal to get the Americans on board?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, first the 11 nations have agreed to sign the agreement in March. And so I don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We must sign the agreement first, but it is an agreement that has an open architecture. In other words, other countries can join if they are prepared to support the rules and principles and guidelines and standards that have been agreed by the 11 member countries. A number of countries expressed interest. The former Foreign Minister of Thailand raised with me here in Los Angeles that Thailand would be very interested in joining. I believe South Korea has shown interest and Britain, but of course, the United States is the largest consumer market in the world. It was an original member of the TPP and we would welcome the United States' return but it would need to be negotiated with the remaining 11 partners if the United States were interested in becoming part of the, what is now called the CPTPP.

PHILIP WILLIAMS: Of course, Donald Trump, the great dealmaker, he wants a deal and he wants a better deal. I just go back to that first question. I mean is there wriggle room for a special deal for the US to get them on board?

JULIE BISHOP: Well it would be a matter of negotiation with the other 11 member countries. The United States is a very attractive market. Of course, we would want to see the United States in any major multilateral trade deal in our region. President Trump hasn't indicated what he means by a better deal for the United States. The original TPP was negotiated with the then Obama Administration, so we would need to see a lot more detail, but of course, we are very open to more countries joining. We think it has not only strong economic benefits for Australia in terms of new jobs and growing our economy and market opportunities for our exporters but it also has strategic importance and we would be delighted to see the United States come on board. But it's very early days and there has been no indication at all as to what President Trump means by a better deal for the US.PHILIP WILLIAMS: Would you welcome China on board as well?

JULIE BISHOP: I believe China has shown interest and we are negotiating a separate free trade deal with China and other countries. The 10 member nations of ASEAN and China and Australia and others have been negotiating what's called RCEP, a regional comprehensive economic agreement, and so of course we would welcome greater trade ties with China. After all, the Coalition negotiated a bilateral free trade agreement with China which has been of enormous benefit to our exporters, large and small.

PHILIP WILLIAMS: Now talking of trade, we've just had an announcement today the Prime Minister and other ministers on new support for arms sales from Australia to other countries. Where's the limit of those arm sales? Which countries would you not export to? For example, Saudi Arabia, would you export to Saudi Arabia when its involved in a war in Yemen?

JULIE BISHOP: Well we can do this on a case by case basis. The Prime Minister announced today that Australia wants to enhance our defence export capability. As you know, we are building a submarine program, a massive ship building program. This will build a huge environment for more jobs in advanced manufacturing, more jobs in defence capability areas, and having an export arm to it is an obvious extension. But we are subject to defence export controls already. We are also party to a number of international agreements about the sale of arms and weapons and so we would abide by them and it would be on a case by case basis. There is demand for arms throughout the world, but Australia would be constrained by not only our own defence export controls but the treaties to which we are a party.

PHILIP WILLIAMS: Of course, there's the wider moral question. Some viewers may say we shouldn't be in the arms business at all. Its repugnant. Its sending arms that could kill people in other countries. What would you say to that?

JULIE BISHOP: We are building defence capability. This is about Australia's national security. And if friends and partners and allies wish to build their defence capability, their national security, and Australia has the expertise and the high-quality products that can assist, well then, it's an area that will drive jobs growth in Australia, and capability in these niche manufacturing and advanced manufacturing fields. And that would be very good for the Australian economy for our standard of living because it will mean more jobs, more jobs for more Australians across the country.

PHILIP WILLIAMS: I go back nearly four years and you and I were both in Ukraine. Because of the aftermath of the MH17 shooting down. You were pretty convinced I believe at the time the Russians had a heavy hand in that. What can you say to the families of the victims and there were many Australians killed in that terrible event that there will ever be justice for their loved ones.

JULIE BISHOP: Philip, I remember that time very well. It is coming up 4 years next July, July 2018 since that terrible incident over Eastern Ukraine. And you will recall the challenges and the struggles we had just to recover the bodies of those who had been killed in the downing of MH17. My view about the cause of the crash and those behind it has not changed. However, we are still waiting for the final details of the criminal investigation, that has been exceedingly thorough, given the challenges of investigating such a crash in such circumstances. We're working closely with Ukraine, Netherlands, Malaysia, Belgium – Australia, we are the joint investigation team. We have made decisions about the best way to prosecute those responsible for this. We have come some way in determining the legal processes we could undertake. So when the criminal investigation report is completed, as I believe it will be this year, it will then be up to prosecutors to determine a case. And Australia stands ready to support a prosecution to bring to justice those responsible for this atrocity. We do maintain contact with the families of the Australians killed on board MH17 and we assure them we will do all we can to bring finality to what has been a horrendous episode in their lives.

PHILIP WILLIAMS: But if the reality is that those that are identified as perpetrators are in Russia, perhaps even in high position in Russia, they're untouchable.

JULIE BISHOP: I don't accept that. I think the reputational harm that would come from a prosecution to a State that harboured those responsible for it would be immense. And I am confident that Australia and the other nations – there are a number of grieving nations, not just the five that comprise the joint investigation team but there a number of countries that lost citizens and residents aboard that flight – and we will continue to seek justice for the families. It cannot be allowed to go unprosecuted. We can't have a situation where a civilian plane can be shot down over a war zone and people escape justice.

PHILIP WILLIAMS: Finally, Minister, on a personal level, it struck me, I was thinking about the history of Australian politics and no foreign minister has ever transitioned directly to prime minister. Isn't it time that was changed?

JULIE BISHOP: You've been doing your history. I hadn't ever thought about that. I'm very focussed on the job I'm undertaking. The number of topics that we have canvassed today indicates the challenges that lie ahead. We have just completed a foreign policy white paper which sets out the threats and the opportunities that lie ahead and I'm very focussed on ensuring that I represent Australia to the best of my ability on the world stage and for the benefit of all – of Australia's interest – all of the Australians living in our magnificent country. And it always seems so much more beautiful when you're overseas as I am constantly. So I'm looking forward to coming home.

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