Interview with Sabra Lane, ABC AM

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: AUSMIN meeting; COVID-19, South China Sea; health security; vaccines.

Sabra Lane: The Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds are in Washington to meet their US counterparts, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper. The meeting has been described as the most significant in decades. I spoke with Marise Payne a short time ago.

Marise Payne, welcome back to AM. Why travel to the United States and then be forced into quarantine back in Australia for two weeks, instead of conducting the meeting over secure video conferencing?

Marise Payne: Sabra, we've been having very many meetings and discussions through those means in recent months as my international counterparts have. But I do think AUSMIN meetings are different. They're very significant. This is my fifth, in fact, but I think this one in particular, the time at which we find ourselves both in terms of the challenges presented to the international community by COVID-19, as well as the strategic challenges that we face, means that it is important to be able to engage with our counterparts directly, personally and face-to-face.

We will be taking every precaution and we are doing so in all of our meetings here, but I do think that undertaking is a very significant one.

Sabra Lane: It's reported the US asked you to fly there for the face-to-face meetings. Will the US ask Australia be more involved in freedom-of-navigation exercises through the South China Sea and be part of a new democratic alliance to counter Chinese influence?

Marise Payne: Well as you know, our meeting is tomorrow and there’s a large range of issues for us to discuss, and we have a very important relationship – the most important relationship with our US ally of all in terms of its contribution to our security and the relationships that we have across the Indo-Pacific.

So, I'm not going to pre-empt those discussions, but what I will say is I think the strength of the Alliance places us well to respond to what are immense health and economic and security challenges within the region, particularly in light of COVID-19. We'll be talking about the sorts of issues that you've raised there broadly but also health security, the harm that disinformation can and is causing in relation to COVID-19, to COVID recovery, our infrastructure investment in the region, resilient supply chains. There's a significant list on the table for us in the next day or so.

Sabra Lane: The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year said the Quad, which is a grouping of nations including Australia, will prove to be very important in the efforts ahead in ensuring that China retains only its proper place in the world. Will the Quad be boosted to counter China's creeping influence, and do you see it the same way he does?

Marise Payne: We've had some very useful discussions in the Quad context. What it allows us to do is to coordinate, to cooperate on the security and the stability of our region in a very effective way, and when you think about the nature of the four democracies and the values that we each bring to the table, I think there is a degree of commonality but also a degree of individuality, which means each of us comes with our own perspective. It makes the Quad a very powerful combination.

Sabra Lane: The language from China and allies appears to be ramped up at the moment over the South China Sea. Australia has backed in the US position on this. What happens if there's a miscalculation or a mistake by either side during freedom-of-navigation exercises, for example, and some heated contact happens as a result?

Marise Payne: I'm not sure that it's beneficial to engage in hypotheticals, but one thing that I do know from my period…

Sabra Lane: [Interrupts] The scenario is a possibility. Surely that's weighed on you at some point.

Marise Payne: One thing that I do know from my period of years as Australia's Defence Minister is that we work in cooperation, in consultation with colleagues, with counterparts, with partners in our defence exercises and our defence activities to plan for and to envisage such challenges all the time.

The ADF is well-versed in how to approach these issues as is the US Navy, as is the PLA Navy, as is the Indian Navy and so the list goes on. That is part of what we do. Most importantly, though, we expect all participants and all present in South China Sea waters and anywhere else, frankly, to behave and to act in a way that is responsible and sensible and contributes to safety and security. And avoiding miscalculation and avoiding those sorts of issues is a very important part of the way that a responsible military force behaves.

Sabra Lane: COVID will be an important topic. Will you counsel the US against withdrawing money and support from the World Health Organization now, as the world's in the middle of a pandemic? And will be asking the US to share any COVID vaccine with Australia?

Marise Payne: Well, COVID-19 will be a very important topic as part of our discussions. And the US decision in relation to the World Health Organization and their own position is a matter for them. But importantly, it doesn't preclude us or others in the international community from working with the United States on global health matters. Although they have confirmed their withdrawal from the WHO, I think importantly they have committed to redirect that funding to other international health initiatives, and one thing which I am very optimistic that we will see out of this AUSMIN discussion is further cooperation between our two countries on global health security.

I just left a meeting this afternoon with the chair of GAVI the Global Vaccines and Immunization Alliance with the Chair Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and she and I have discussed, importantly, the accessibility and affordability of vaccines for COVID-19 should we be able to identify one. Australia is a leader in that context and I look forward to continuing those discussions with my US counterparts tomorrow.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for joining AM.

Marise Payne: Thanks very much, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: The Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

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