Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: ASEAN, AUSMIN, US Force Posture Initiative, Hong Kong, Crown Casino, UQ protests, Australia’s role in the region.

KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, thanks so much for your time, you're heading to Bangkok tomorrow for the ASEAN Ministers Summit. How important is ASEAN as a regional stabiliser right now? And Australia's engagement with it, in the context of what is quite an uncertain time?

FOREIGN MINISTER: I think ASEAN is proving its strength in so many ways and obviously has been contributing to security and stability in our region for many decades now. Importantly, they have recently released the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and we have strongly endorsed them and their engagement in that context. For us, in the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN centrality is very much part of the approach that we are taking. So this is a chance for me to meet with counterparts – again in Bangkok – also to meet with the new Thai Government, recently re-elected and to reaffirm, if you like, Australia's strong relationship between us and Thailand.

KIERAN GILBERT: This grouping though has been traditionally has been quite cautious, can it form the basis upon which others can engage and smooth out differences that we see between you know, China and Japan for example, or China and the US. Is it that sort of body?

FOREIGN MINISTER: It does take a cautious approach but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It is important to be careful in key strategic areas in which ASEAN finds itself from time to time. But we work very closely with them as a grouping. Of course we held the first ASEAN Australia Special Summit here in Sydney just a couple of years ago, very much reinforcing our engagement with those leaders across the region and some of our strongest bilateral relationships, whether it's Australia and Indonesia, Australia and Singapore. I was recently in Vietnam reinforcing our engagement there with them, their determination to grow, to bring Vietnam and its economy forward into the region. All of those things for Australia are key bilateral relationships. But the core that is ASEAN enables us to work together very closely on those issues of security and stability and of course prosperity in the region.

KIERAN GILBERT: And then you'll be back to Australia. No doubt you'll see Secretary of State Pompeo at these talks, but AUSMIN is this weekend in Sydney. What do you anticipate out of that and I guess, in the context of Prime Minister Morrison going to Washington for this state visit, do you expect requests, further requests at a time when the US has got various pressures right now, Iran among others?

FOREIGN MINISTER: I think it's a very important AUSMIN meeting and it's going to be a great pleasure to host Secretary Pompeo and of course, newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Dr Mark Esper in Sydney. These face to face meetings give us a unique chance to actually sit down and get into the nitty gritty of the issues that we work on together constantly and of course it's a great reminder as Ambassador Hockey would tell anyone who cared to listen, of the 100 years of mateship that really reinforces and underpins the relationship. The alliance enables us to bring a coherence, a connection in our work in the region like nothing else. And so the chance to actually have these longer meetings to engage directly and personally in Australia and previously of course in the United States, is a very important one. I'm looking forward to seeing Mike Pompeo both in Bangkok at the end of this week and then in Sydney on the weekend.

KIERAN GILBERT: But as we know, well many people would assess President Trump as unpredictable, an unpredictable leader. In that context, will any subsequent requests from the US be taken on its merits as opposed to not wanting to annoy the President?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well we always do that. We always consider requests from our allies and our partners on their merits and most importantly though, in Australia's national interests and based on what is in the interests of preserving our national security. And I could use that as an application across a broad range of areas, but it also applies to our discussions with the US, no matter when they occur.

KIERAN GILBERT: A Navy budget item out of the US has emerged – USD $211 million, an investment in Darwin apparently. Can you confirm those plans in terms of the naval presence?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well there are significant plans under the US Force Posture Initiative which have been part of the development of the Force Posture Initiative for some years now and in fact, I signed an agreement on some of those plans with former Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, myself, perhaps, even at the last AUSMIN if I recall correctly in California. So they are part of the development of facilities that will support the Force Posture Initiative, the marine rotations and the details will of course be put through the US system. But most importantly, this is a matter that the US are proceeding with through their budget processes and we would expect that to be the case.

KIERAN GILBERT: And would you expect China to be angered by this development?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I think the Force Posture Initiatives are very public and a well-known engagement between Australia and the United States. What it's enabled us to do in a bilateral sense, but also in a multilateral sense in the region is particularly important. We've just seen the conclusion of key Defence exercises in Talisman Sabre, of course, and the Minister for Defence has spoken eloquently about the power of those exercises. But what it enables us to do is to work more closely in the region; to engage on those key issues of security and stability, to work with our neighbours in Indonesia, in the Philippines, in Malaysia, wherever the need arises. Marawi is a very good example of that. Where after the appalling conflict in Marawi in the Philippines, we were able to engage bilaterally with the Philippines but also with partners, including the United States, in terms of supporting the Philippines' Government then, another of course, key member of ASEAN.

KIERAN GILBERT: The point of tension at the moment in Hong Kong. Would you urge China to honour, continue to honour the two-system, one-state approach they've taken to Hong Kong? Because at the moment there are questions as to whether or not the PLA might intervene amid these ongoing protests.

FOREIGN MINISTER: I think we've been consistent in saying that Australia very much values the freedoms and the advantages of Hong Kong and the way it exists with that high degree of autonomy under the one country, two systems approach, and I would reinforce those statements, those views. We do encourage those who are protesting to engage in peaceful protests. I think it is very important to avoid violence in these situations and we would never endorse a violent activity in that way. But also important for the Hong Kong administration to be able to hear the views of their community, their population. This has been a very difficult time in Hong Kong. It's difficult for a large Australian expatriate community, let alone those of the larger community there.

KIERAN GILBERT: Should the central government in Beijing acknowledge the deep seated concerns that many in Hong Kong have about the political system of mainland China, as opposed to saying it's just a radical fringe?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, they're matters for the Chinese Government, of course, for the central government. But what we have seen work so productively and so well over many, many years now is the strong sense of autonomy that comes from the one country, two systems approach and again, we would reinforce our support for that.

KIERAN GILBERT: We saw reports via Channel Nine this week in relation to Crown Casino of an emergency line or a hotline via our consulates to expedite the visa approval for high rollers courtesy of Crown Casino. Are you aware of that and is it appropriate use of our consulates?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I understand that there are investigations underway broadly by law enforcement agencies into financially motivated crime and that includes some of the matters referred to in these investigations, the so-called casino junket operations. I don't want to engage in any commentary on ongoing investigations, as you would expect. But I would always say that Australia's posts should be used in an appropriate way, in a lawful way and observing all requirements and regulations in our work.

KIERAN GILBERT: So the Government is seeking to get to the bottom of that, those claims?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, the Government is making appropriate inquiries and I don't want to canvass the investigations over this.

KIERAN GILBERT: Speaking of appropriate use of Australian facilities, I guess, the universities as well is something that we consider and there have been claims of Chinese influence on our campuses. UQ, in the last week, there was a protest in support of the democracy protesters in Hong Kong and a clash with others. Are you concerned that this might have been some influence and foreign influence in terms of the individuals concerned or are you comfortable that this was just a clash between individuals?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, let me first of all reinforce the right to free speech, freedom of expression and lawful protest in Australia and that is something that is an inherent part of our democracy and our democratic processes. We would always be concerned if there was any efforts to influence or to interfere by foreign diplomatic missions in those sorts of activities and we made a very clear statement about that at the end of last week.

KIERAN GILBERT: One last question - a broad one, I know you've got to go. But how do you see Australia's role in our region? As we've touched on earlier in the interview, there is tension in the region. We've discussed the Chinese presence and there've been various reports of a base in Cambodia and so on. But in the broader context, how do you see Australia's role in this region amid the contest of the major powers?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, there's, in my view, no question that we're obviously in very dynamic strategic environment in our region and more broadly. Our contribution, which should always be in the pursuit of Australia's national interests, should also be made on the basis of contributing to the security and the stability of our region. Our key bilateral relationships, whether they're between us and our neighbours in the Pacific, us and our neighbours and counterparts in South East Asia and more broadly, are all about contributing to that security and stability; and I think Australia does have a very important role to play.

We are a well-respected participant in key international fora. The ASEAN meetings and the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers' Meetings this week coming up are a good example of that. I was at the Pacific Island Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting in Suva on Friday and those discussions, wherever they occur, are always robust but they're also always relevant and pertinent to the circumstances in front of us, as a region, the broad Indo-Pacific. Even the meetings that I was participating in just a week or so ago, on the Commonwealth in London with a very, very broad representation obviously of the diverse members of the Commonwealth but including the Pacific, including South East Asia. We are well regarded, our contributions are valued, and I look forward to working hard as Australia's Foreign Minister to continue in those contributions in key international fora and perhaps, even more importantly, in our key bilateral relationships.

KIERAN GILBERT: Foreign Minister, I appreciate your time on a busy day and we wish you well in Thailand with ASEAN. Talk to you soon.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Thanks very much, Kieran.

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