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Maritime security a focus at Indian Ocean Rim meeting
One third of the world's trade passes through the South and East China Seas, and Australia is among the countries whose economies would suffer grievously if territorial disputes between China and its neighbours get out of hand.

Of particular concern is the heightened tension between China and Japan, two of Australia's top trading partners.

Tony Abbott's new Government has just hosted its first meeting of regional leaders in Perth, and maritime security was a key focus.

Australia's foreign minister, Julie Bishop, spoke to Jim Middleton.
JIM MIDDLETON, PRESENTER: Foreign Minister, it's very good to be talking to you.


JIM MIDDLETON: I wonder if I could ask about a matter of immediate importance which is the escalating tension between China and Japan over those disputed islands in between them. Fully 40 per cent of Australia's trade is with North Asia; just how worried is Australia that this as the tension increases, that this could get out of hand?

JULIE BISHOP: We are concerned that there has been escalating tension between China and Japan over the East China Sea. And it is an exceedingly important waterway for trade, and we need to ensure that there's no use of force, no coercion and that we can maintain peace and stability in the region. Not only important for China-Japan and the more immediate region, but also for Australia and other trading partners. Australia has a longstanding policy not to take sides in sovereignty claims, and we will continue that, we certainly don't, but we urge both parties to find a peaceful resolution to this issue.

JIM MIDDLETON: Doesn't look very likely given what they've been saying to each other recently. There's no sign, in fact, of any negotiations. The two leaders of Japan and China have not met as far as I'm aware, also their militaries have no way of communicating with each other to tell each other what they're doing. This is a very dangerous situation is it not?

JULIE BISHOP: It's important for countries in the region and the friends and allies of both China and Japan to urge for a peaceful negotiation over this issue. We believe that there should be no use of force, that there should be no coercion on either side and that we should work as hard as we can with both China and Japan to ensure that there's peace maintained in the East China Sea.

JIM MIDDLETON: Japan's clearly worried about the growth in Chinese military power recently. Do you think that China needs to watch out how it throws its weight around in the region as it grows more powerful both economically and militarily?

JULIE BISHOP: China is a massively growing economy and many countries around the world are benefitting from China's peaceful rise. Australia's not the only country that now has China as its number one trading partner. Over 100 countries or more are now nominating China as their major trading partner. So China's economic rise is a force for good around the world. It's to be expected that its military capabilities would increase with its economic power. But we need to ensure that there's an understanding between countries as to why a country would or would not be increasing the size or decreasing the size of its military. And in the case of China you've got to continue to discuss with them what they're doing, what their military capability is. Australia is seeking to engage more deeply with China on military exercises as are other countries so I see it as an area where we can continue to cooperate closely with China and we urge other countries to do the same.

JIM MIDDLETON: Prime Minister Tony Abbott has described Japan as Australia's closest friend in the Asia Pacific. Does Australia then support Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's desire to expand the scope of Japan's military activities, effectively to abandon the strictly pacifist interpretation of Japan's post-war constitution?

JULIE BISHOP: We certainly understand why Japan would want to be a more normal nation in terms of having the rights of any other member nation of the United Nations, and why they would want to more normalise their defence posture. For example, Australia and Japan have been together in many areas of conflict including in Iraq and Afghanistan and a situation arises where Australian forces can protect Japanese forces under attack but Japanese forces can't protect Australian forces under attack. So a more normalised defence posture is, I believe, inevitable.

JIM MIDDLETON: Do you understand why that might worry China given the history of the two nations.

JULIE BISHOP: It is important that Japan explain what it is doing and it's a point I've made to the Japanese foreign ministers and others that I've met that in this region we need to collaborate, cooperate, talk to each other about our aspirations and our strategic goals and I certainly encourage Japan to explain the need for an expanded defence posture in terms of peacekeeping, disaster relief - there are many circumstances where Japan could play a more constructive role and contribute more as a very constructive member of the United Nations.

JIM MIDDLETON: You're about to host your first meeting with a number of Australia's Indian Ocean regional partners in your home city of Perth. Is this simply an opportunity to get to know some of your key counterparts a bit better?

JULIE BISHOP: In fact, the Indian Ocean Rim Association has been in existence since 1997 and this is the first occasion that Australia has hosted the meeting. Perth is Australia's Indian Ocean capital and I'm delighted to be able to welcome many foreign ministers, about 10 member countries in all, about 16 foreign ministers will be attending this meeting. And yes I will have the opportunity to meet a number of my counterpart ministers, although I've met a number of them already in the visits I've done to date and also in the United Nations. But more importantly I want to focus the agenda on issues that are in Australia's national interest: growing our economy as well as supporting the economies in the Indian Ocean rim. It's a very diverse group of countries from India, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, through to the Seychelles, Yemen, Iran...

JIM MIDDLETON: Do you think we've ignored the economic and strategic importance of the Indian Ocean for too long, and is that something that's a priority now as far as you're concerned?

JULIE BISHOP: Absolutely, it should be a priority for any Australian government and I believe that this meeting of foreign ministers and senior officials from these 20 member countries will put the Indian Ocean rim firmly on the foreign policy agenda but also in terms of trade, investment, fisheries management, disaster relief, tourism and cultural exchange, student, academic research exchange and importantly maritime safety and security. The Indian Ocean is also an exceedingly important shipping lane, waterway. There have bene incidences of piracy, other concerns about the management of safety and security in the Indian Ocean Rim and hence this meeting will focus on all of those issues which will be in Australia's national interests as well as promoting the peace and security throughout this extraordinarily diverse region of the Indian Ocean.

JIM MIDDLETON: Tony Abbott's promised a free trade agreement with China within 12 months. Former Australian ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, is right, is he not, when he says there will be no agreement without Australian concessions on foreign investment to the Chinese?

JULIE BISHOP: We are in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement. Obviously I'm not going to give away our negotiating position, nor would I expect the Chinese to give away their negotiating position. But I am confident we will be able to conclude a free trade agreement. We have had a statement of willingness on the part of the Chinese leadership to conclude a free trade agreement with Australia within the time frame set by Prime Minister Abbott. And there is so much for our country to gain in terms of growing our economy, job opportunities, investment opportunities for Australian exporters, for our services. It's an exciting prospect. New Zealand concluded a free trade agreement with China in 2008 and according to New Zealand Prime Minister (John) Key it's had a significant impact on New Zealand exports and I would hope it would have the same impact should Australia be able to conclude one.

JIM MIDDLETON: Do you accept that the Chinese statements out of Beijing expressing distress and anger that Australia will not allow its telecommunications giant Huawei to bid for tenders in relation to Australia's National Broadband Network, that this is a warning shot from the Chinese in terms of their negotiating position?

JULIE BISHOP: We certainly welcome Chinese investment. We are certainly keen to conclude a free trade agreement with China. The issue of national security in relation to one matter that was decided by the previous government should not impact on our negotiations for a free trade agreement with China.

JIM MIDDLETON: One final subject, you met Fiji's foreign minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola. He says you gave a firm commitment to normalise relations "at the earliest possible opportunity". How early is possible?

JULIE BISHOP: Foreign Minister Kubuabola and I have met on a number of occasions with a view to normalising the relations between Australia and Fiji. Fiji is in the process of holding an election. They are yet to nominate a date, but I expect that to be some time in 2014. So in the meantime, we want to ensure that Australia and Fiji can work together to normalise relations, so that the once very close engagement between our two countries can continue.

JIM MIDDLETON: Did he give you any indication or any assurances that the agreement previously reached that diplomatic representation could be resumed, that a High Commissioner could return to Suva, that that would happen post-haste?

JULIE BISHOP: We discussed a whole range of issues regarding our bilateral relationship and we are both determined to ensure that Australia and Fiji can normalise relations.

JIM MIDDLETON: But you can't normalise relations without having diplomatic representation can you?

JULIE BISHOP: We discussed a whole range of issues and there was a great deal of willingness on both sides to see if we can find a solution as soon as possible. Fiji is an important nation in the Pacific, it has been an important partner for Australia in many ways, and we want to move on from the era that was set under the former Labor government. We want to normalise our relations with Fiji in military, economic, trade, investment; a whole range of areas where we believe Australia and Fiji can be natural partners.

JIM MIDDLETON: Foreign Minister, thank you very much.

JULIE BISHOP: It's been my pleasure.
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