Minister Hawke – Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
26 July 2020

SHARRI MARKSON: Joining me now to discuss this is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Alex Hawke. Minister, thank you very much for joining me this evening. Why has Australia decided that now is the right time to formally declare China's claims in the South China Sea to be illegal and what does this say about how worried Australia is about China’s increased aggression in the South China Sea?

ALEX HAWKE: Thanks Sharri and obviously it's a very important issue. Just to clarify one thing there. Australia's always maintained that the rules of international law should be upheld and [indistinct] the Law of the Sea, the convention of the sea, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Since 2016 when this ruling was made, the arbitration ruling, Australia's held the same position that that should be upheld and all countries should abide by it. And look, recently we've just seen the four-year anniversary of that. The Philippines marked the four-year anniversary of that with a statement saying they absolutely are undertaking to deliver on the arbitration from their end. But what we've seen from China, of course, is a maintenance of these historic rights that they claim. And so Australia's updated our note at the United Nations there. We've lodged that through Mitch Fifield, saying that this is unlawful according to international law. It is in Australia's position, it's the United Nation's arbitration ruling of four-years ago. Four years is enough time where Australia and other countries has been saying it is important tensions deescalate, people don't militarise the South China Sea, that people have freedom of navigation and of course, we've seen, as you point out quite rightly, Sharri, an increase in the sinking of fishing vessels, of incidents of militarisation of certain islands and features and Australia rejects that and we strongly reject that with our international partners.

SHARRI MARKSON: Would you describe China's actions in the region and in particular in the South China Sea as being bullying and unlawful?

ALEX HAWKE: We stand with our partners. We stand by countries like the Philippines, like Vietnam, like Indonesia and everyone has an interest in the region, our region, the Southeast Asia region in the South China Sea. And we certainly declare unilaterally and now note that we stand by the United Nations arbitration ruling four years ago.

SHARRI MARKSON: Have they been bullying? Has China been bullying the other countries?

ALEX HAWKE: Well their actions have certainly been aggressive. They've certainly been moving in to militarise the South China Sea and we find that unlawful and that's what we said in our note. It is unlawful according to international law and the rule of international law must be upheld. So it's unlawful they have been breaking international law and it's very important that, of course, they abide by international law and all countries and the entire world has a stake in making sure big countries, small countries abide by international law.

SHARRI MARKSON: Minister, I've had two guests on my show recently, two experts in the defence space, Peter Jennings and John Lee, who both say that the risk of Chinese military action are like the shooting down of an aircraft or the sinking of a ship has increased significantly. They even warn that such an incident targeted against Australia could occur later this year or next. Do you think this assessment is correct?

ALEX HAWKE: Well look, I'll leave those assessments to them. We are, of course, concerned about the incidents that have occurred, that you have pointed to in the South China Sea - the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat, incidents with the Indonesians, of course, and shipping and fishing there. We've seen, of course, military targeting of some vessels, naval vessels from the Philippines there in the South China Sea. We reject all of those things. The international ruling was clear, international law is clear and we've stood up with our friends and partners around the world saying China needs to abide by international law and accept the arbitration ruling. And of course, if you're militarising features or if you're engaging in aggressive actions in the South China Sea, the potential for something to go wrong is increased. And we've seen that happening in recent times.

SHARRI MARKSON: China's position has long been that it continues to urge Australian ministers and Australia generally to stay out of its disputes in the South China Sea. This action that Australia's taken in the UN on the eve of the AUSMIN visit will be criticised for raising the stakes in our relationship with China. Already we have seen evidence that China's threatening retaliation through media reports that even speak about further sanctions in beef and wine. Are you now worried about retaliation? And why has Australia decided to take this action that is indisputably provocative?

ALEX HAWKE: Australia has always been a good international contributor and we continue to be. Here, we are joining other countries in saying that simply that these are international waters, the South China Sea. These don't belong to any one country. And the arbitration ruling of four years ago upholds the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and we've maintained our right from that time to this time to travel through international waters, and our ships have regularly done that through navigation exercises.

SHARRI MARKSON: [Interrupts] But Minister, even if Australia is on the right side of history here; are you concerned about the retaliation that, you know, that China may take?

ALEX HAWKE: Well we have heard the pleas of our partners I think is the important point Sharri, you know, whether it's Vietnam, whether it's the Philippines, whether it's others in the region and you know we always stand with our partners and listen very carefully to the rule of- international rule. What China does is a matter for China but there is no need for retaliation in that sense because we're simply upholding the international rules-based order. We're not acting unilaterally. It's not Australia deciding something. It's the United Nations has arbitrated on this and made a ruling that is consistent with international law and the international system has to uphold that law.

SHARRI MARKSON: In an environment where we have- where Australia has shut down travel, why are two of our most senior ministers physically going to AUSMIN to meet with their counterparts there. And, you know, does this say something about the importance of the visit, that they are going there primarily to discuss the escalating circumstance with China? Both Australia's and the US?

ALEX HAWKE: Well Sharri, it is a very important time and our alliance, whether it be the economic alliance or the security alliance with the US is absolutely vital to Australia's national interest. And so our ministers travelling there in what is a very difficult time to deal with all of the things that you would expect Australia to be working with the United States on, that is our regional response to the health pandemic, to the economic effects of the health pandemic, and of course, the region’s security. Given the cornerstone that the US alliance is on our economic health and our security, I think it's obviously very important. Not everything can be discussed over the phone or on a webinar. Some things are very complex and have to be worked through and you couldn't get a more important time then right now when there's a lot of pressure on the world. Pressure on the world to do a lot more regionally, to do a lot more together and I work with counterparts internationally every week or two now, to do the best we can to contribute internationally. And our ministers in the US will be working with the US to do the same.

SHARRI MARKSON: Will China be the main focus of the visit this week?

ALEX HAWKE: No, obviously not. The health pandemic and the economic consequences of the health pandemic and what we can do for our region together, obviously form the statement that Minister Marise Payne and Minister Linda Reynolds put together. Obviously regional security is very important and will be discussed and you'd expect that. But we have, obviously, a huge economic stake in the economy of the United States, still the highest contributor and direct foreign investment in Australia. And that will be very significant in the coming year ahead. So, whether you-

SHARRI MARKSON: [Interrupts] On the regional security, are we going to be pushing the US to commit more resources to the Pacific and to the Asia-Pacific area as the threat from China increases?

ALEX HAWKE: Absolutely Sharri, and that's been our position for some time. We've been encouraging the US to contribute more to help Pacific Island countries, we've been asking Japan to do more. We've been asking India to do more. All of our partners in the region, we ask to contribute more in terms of development assistance, in terms of regional security and of course that will be a feature of the talks, the Indo Pacific security. But you know, the United States, of course, is coming to the table on significant infrastructure projects and they have a lot to add and a lot of value to partner with us or New Zealand or Japan in doing high quality infrastructure projects for countries in the Pacific.

SHARRI MARKSON: Minister, just before you had the go- before you go, last time I had you on the program we spoke about a safe zone travel bubble with the Pacific with Fiji, with New Zealand. Where are you up to with these negotiations? When can we expect, perhaps not Victoria, but the rest of Australia, to establish a safe zone travel bubble with places like Fiji and New Zealand both for tourism and for employment?

ALEX HAWKE: Well the Trans-Tasman bubble is the most important part of your question and the negotiations have progressed. Obviously the situation in Victoria has meant some amendment and rethinking of the arrangements and how they might function. They are progressing. Both governments remain committed to the Trans-Tasman bubble, as soon as its practical and all arrangements have been worked through. I have asked our department and our officials to continue to work with our partner countries in the Pacific to get all the logistical arrangements you'd expect ready so that when countries can be added to the Trans-Tasman bubble, we'll be ready to do that. In the meantime-

SHARRI MARKSON: [Interrupts] Do you think it'll be up and running by the end of this year? What's your timeframe that you're working towards?

ALEX HAWKE: Well originally we were expecting the Trans-Tasman bubble to be up and running in the very near future. That may be delayed by a month or two. We hope by the end of the year that there would be Trans-Tasman travel and that we would be able to then look at Pacific countries on a case by case basis and if they were satisfied, very importantly, and we were satisfied, be able to do that. There's also the possibility as I think I might've mentioned last time, of bringing seasonal workers here to Australia from Pacific countries and having quarantine arrangements that are very safe for them to make sure some of our industries that rely on them and that the remittances and the fees that they rely on back home in their countries can continue as well. So there's quite a lot of work being done behind the scenes at the moment.

SHARRI MARKSON: Minister, thank you very much for your time this Sunday evening. Appreciate it.

ALEX HAWKE: Thanks Sharri.


Media enquiries

  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555