Sky News, interview with Kieran Gilbert

  • Transcript, E&OE

JOURNALIST: Minister, thanks for your time. First of all, first and foremost was that phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Turnbull mentioned during your talks with Secretary Tillerson?

JULIE BISHOP: It has not been raised by any of the Administration officials that I have met. It was not raised by Vice President Pence nor by Secretary Tillerson, but it is very evident that there is enormous good will towards Australia and Australians. We are close strategic and defence partners with the United States, we are trading and investment partners, we are close friends, and that has been quite evident from my meetings with not only the Administration officials but also the intelligence community and others with whom I have met with during my time here in Washington.

JOURNALIST: The phone call was obviously the backdrop for the visit. You were there to try and smooth over things, to repair relations, aren't you? Is it fair to say that call would have been the elephant in the room so to speak?

JULIE BISHOP: Well in fact I think it is incumbent upon Australian Ministers to make contact with their counter parts in the new Administration as soon as possible. After all we have a lot of work to do together. The United States and Australia cooperate on many fronts, on many different areas and we have faced many challenges in the past and will face many challenges together in the future. There are also many opportunities where Australia and the United States can work closely together. These are the sorts of issues I was discussing with Vice President Pence and with Secretary Tillerson.

JOURNALIST: Secretary Tillerson made some very strong remarks in his confirmation process. I will read one of them, he says: 'Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia's taking of Crimea, it is taking of territory that others lay claim to'. This of course in relation to China's activity in the South China Sea. He even raised the prospect of a possible blockade of Chinese craft in that region. Was he as forceful on that issue when you spoke to him?

JULIE BISHOP: We certainly took the opportunity to express Australia's point of view – which I have said publicly, privately and consistently over a number years now – that while we are not a claimant state we urge all parties to these various claims to settle their disputes peacefully. It was an issue I discussed with Secretary Tillerson. He did not repeat the words from his confirmation hearing but he certainly listened to our perspective and noted that we needed to ensure that countries still had the right of overflight and navigation and that we did not impede trade in any way, and that we also worked closely and constructively with China. I gave our ideas, our perspectives, our insights into the South China Sea issue and he seemed to listen with interest. But I think both the United States and China recognise that there would be much to lose if there was conflict over the South China Sea and much to gain if the conflicts and the tensions were de-escalated.

JOURNALIST: According the US officials, China has nearly completed 24 or a few dozen, is what they say, structures on those artificial islands. They look like they are designed to house long range surface to air missiles, was that discussed specifically?

JULIE BISHOP: Both Australia and the United States oppose the land reclamation and militarisation of the islands so we did discuss this issue. These are matters that I have raised publicly and privately with China. We urge the claimants to the various disputed features and islands to resolve their differences peacefully. It is not in anyone's interests for there to be an escalation of tensions on the South China Sea and around that area. Australia will continue to exercise our rights of freedom of overflight and freedom of navigation because it is on our interests to do so. We need unimpeded trade through the South China Sea because that is a where a majority of our exports to Asia pass.

JOURNALIST: Peter Dutton the Immigration Minister said we will not be accepting any Costa Rican refugees as agreed to by Mr Turnbull last September in New York, until we start seeing some refugees from Nauru and Manus heading to the United States. Did you express a similar message, did you share that message with your counterpart?

JULIE BISHOP: That is not my understanding of our agreement with the United States and I believe that Minister Dutton clarified the comments overnight. He has made it quite clear that we have a humanitarian and refugee program, it is quite separate from the agreement we have reached with the United States and our officials are currently working with the United States in progressing that agreement with the United States. It was not a matter of discussion with the Administration.

JOURNALIST: So Minister Dutton overstepped the mark in that comment then?

JULIE BISHOP: I understand that Peter Dutton clarified his statements and it reflects my understanding of the agreement, that it is separate to our humanitarian and refugee program, where we accept over 13,000 people claiming humanitarian or refugee status. That is increasing to about 18,750. As part of a completely separate arrangement, we have requested the United States to assist resettling people who paid people smugglers to seek to come to Australia and are currently detained on Narau.

JOURNALIST: Did you reassure the Secretary of State that that remains Australia's position, not as expressed by Minister Dutton?

JULIE BISHOP: Kieran, this matter was not raised. It has been dealt with at officials' level, the agreement is in place, is being honoured, it has been progressed by the officials. So it was not a matter I raised with either the Vice President or the Secretary and they did not raise it with me.

JOURNALIST: The President, Mr Trump, has issued a 30 day review of operations in the Middle East. I am wondering if there was not a request, as I understand it, there wasn't a request for additional Australian militarily support in these talks that you have had in the last couple of days. But do you anticipate that there will be after this 30 day review?

JULIE BISHOP: The subject of the review into the situation in Syria and Iraq and the defeat of ISIS was discussed with both Vice President Pence and Secretary Tillerson in some detail. We had lengthy discussions about it. I took the opportunity to give the United States our perspective. We have been involved in the fight against terrorism for some time now. We have been in Syria and Iraq for a number of years, and so I took the opportunity to pass on our observations, our experiences, our insights and ideas that we had. Obviously I will not go into that detail because they are strategic security matters. But Secretary Tillerson took note of what we had to say. Their review is ongoing, I think it was a 30 day review. That time frame is not yet up, and so we expect over the next few weeks to hear more about the United States' plan to defeat ISIS. But I was not asked for any extra commitment, nor do I expect to be, but of course, should there be a request, as always, the Australian Government would consider it, as past governments have and future governments will do.

JOURNALIST: Is the US confident that the Iraqi forces will seize Mosul in this current operation?

JULIE BISHOP: There is optimism that the Iraqi Security Forces are making good progress in retaking Mosul, driving out ISIS and driving out the terrorists and reclaiming the land that was once claimed as a caliphate. This does raise another issue and that is the return of foreign terrorist fighters, particularly to our region. I did discuss our efforts to counter terrorism in our part of the world, with both the Vice President and the Secretary of State. We discussed ways where we can continue to cooperate with our neighbours in the region and also go to the root cause and also look at ways of countering the violent extremism that seems to drive this Islamic extremism that has resulted in the kind of terrorism that we have seen around the world in recent years.

JOURNALIST: A couple of issues just to conclude. Did you seek reassurances from the Secretary of State that Australian passport holders will be excluded under the imminent executive order from President Trump that we are expecting him to issue in the next few days, in relation to the migration ban, that is?

JULIE BISHOP: I understand that Australians will not be affected.

JOURNALIST: Was that given to you as another reassurance by Secretary Tillerson?

JULIE BISHOP: Not specifically by the Secretary, but I understand that Australians will not be affected by the expanded executive order.

JOURNALIST: Okay, last question in relation to Benjamin Netanyahu, first day of his visit to Australia. He has forcefully responded to Kevin Rudd and Bob Hawke who have said that we should diplomatically recognise Palestine. What do you make of this, particularly given that more than a hundred other nations have already done so? Former Prime Ministers are well within their rights to make these suggestions, aren't they?

JULIE BISHOP: I disagree with their suggestion. I do not believe there will be a lasting peace if a Palestinian State is unilaterally forced upon Israel. What needs to happen is for the Palestinians and the Israelis to negotiate a two-state solution whereby the people of Israel and the Palestinians can live side by side, behind internationally recognised boundaries. A unilateral imposition of a state will not lead to lasting peace.

JOURNALIST: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, we appreciate your time in Washington, thanks.

JULIE BISHOP: Thanks Kieran.

- Ends -

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